Pro14: ‘Making good progress’ – BBC Sport NI analyst McWhirter’s mid-term report on Ulster’s season

James Hume’s Ulster and Robbie Henshaw’s Leinster will meet in a key Pro14 match in Belfast on 6 March

Can Ulster end the term top of the class? Who is passing with flying colours? And who looks like they may make the grade?

With Ulster having been forced to press the pause button on their promising season, we thought this a suitable opportunity to reflect on their campaign to date and look ahead to what they might achieve over the next few months.

The winners of Conference A will progress to the Pro14 final in March as a result of a re-jig of this year’s competition and as it stands Dan McFarland’s side lie second in their group, four points behind Irish interprovincial rivals Leinster, who beat Scarlets on Saturday.

At a time when home-schooling and remote learning are prevalent as a result of the restrictions imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus, we asked BBC Sport NI pundit Tony McWhirter for his thoughts in the form of a mid-term report.

Hopefully you will find his analysis an education as he assesses the class of 2020-21.

‘Making good progress’

“Ulster have pretty much done everything that could be asked of them, going on a long winning run, scoring plenty of tries and looking more solid in terms of how they are trying to play and what they are trying to achieve.

The defeat away to Leinster was probably expected but they still played well in that game and they couldn’t be in a much better place with all to play for in the Pro14.

The quality of the league is not what it was over the last couple of years because of Covid and the volume of international matches being played but Ulster have been one of the luckier teams as they have not lost as many players to national team duty.

You can only beat what is put in front of you and Ulster have been consistent in their performances and their selections, while some of the Academy players have started to get some game time in what is a fairly young team.

Ulster possess plenty of strength in depth and have the opportunity to have a strong February and March while Leinster are shorn of all their Ireland international contingent.”

The star pupils

Alan O'Connor
Alan O’Connor has skippered Ulster on a number of occasions this season

“I have been really impressed by Alan O’Connor. He has made a big impact and the fact that he has been made captain for a number of games indicates that he is highly regarded by the management.

He has been a strong and consistent performer and now appears to be number one choice to partner Iain Henderson in the second row for the big games.

Sean Reidy is another standout player while John Cooney has come back into form after a slow start to the season and Michael Lowry has played well week-on-week.

James Hume and Stewart Moore may be regarded as junior members of the squad by virtue of their age but they too have been very impressive week in, week out.”

The new intake

“Ethan McIlroy, Nathan Doak, Callum Reid and David McCann have all been given a chance to show what they can do and they are all homegrown players who want to play for Ulster and can help form the backbone of the squad for years to come. Aaron Sexton is another who should have a big future.

They all buy into what it means to play for Ulster and want to take the squad back to a place where they can win silverware again.

Hooker Tom Stewart is another very promising prospect. He has been troubled by hamstring injuries during the first part of the season but is very much one to watch and I believe he will play for Ireland one day.”

Ethan McIlroy
Ethan McIlroy is among an exciting crop of young Ulster players

‘Must do better?’

“It’s hard to be critical of Ulster’s season so far but I suppose if there has been one slightly disappointing aspect it was the two European Champions Cup defeats by Toulouse and Gloucester.

The loss to a very average Gloucester side probably irks more because they pretty much had the game won with a minute or two to play but conspired to throw it away.

With only one team from Conference A making the Pro14 final Ulster will know they will have to raise their game and be at their very best to try and beat Leinster in what has all the makings of a crucial encounter at Kingspan Stadium on 6 March.”

Signing up for a new term

“The fact that Ulster have announced 16 new contracts in the last week, with maybe more to come, indicates that the squad is probably not going to change all that much.

Fijian international Leone Nakarawa is obviously coming in from Glasgow to help mitigate the impending loss of Marcell Coetzee.

The likes of Louis Ludik and Alby Mathewson you may see move on as they are nearing the end of their careers and in the case of Matt Faddes he maybe hasn’t performed as well as would have been hoped.

Bryn Cunningham has got a lot of his business done quite quickly, which is good, but Ulster will have to make savings somewhere.

While the squad may not become smaller you could see a lot of the younger Academy guys move up to improved contracts while some professional contracts are not renewed in order to change the overall structure of the wage bill.

Everything is so uncertain at the moment in terms of the economic situation rugby finds itself in that players will be relieved to have some security.”

‘The headmaster and teachers’

Dwayne Peel and Dan McFarland
Ulster assistant coach Dwayne Peel with head coach Dan McFarland

“Consistent improvement has been the hallmark of head coach Dan McFarland’s tenure and he has ushered in a real culture change with his ‘fight for every inch mentality’.

Dan is obviously happy – he wouldn’t have signed up to stay for another two years unless he was. I imagine he would have had no shortage of offers if he had wanted to leave.

It was good work by Bryn and Jonny Petrie to get him signed up.

Assistant coach Dwayne Peel is going to Cardiff at the end of the season and the initial soundings were that skills and kicking coach Dan Soper may replace him.

You expect assistant coaches to move on and do a different job somewhere else, then with that experience gained move on to become a head coach or Director of Rugby.

Dwayne has the chance to go home to Wales, help improve a very underachieving Cardiff team and perhaps make a name for himself.”