It’s that time of year when the real rugby in the Northern Hemisphere is slowing down and the squad analysis for next year begins in earnest.
This is likely to be one of the most interesting off season periods in quite a while. Each of the provinces face many unanswered questions that could be viewed from a variety of angles.
Who’ll replace BOD? Who’ll replace Humphreys? How will Connacht’s new found fortune be spent and how will the new signings integrate? Will Munster’s indigenous coaching team provide a new coherency, or the same old league ambivalence and European near misses?
That’s plenty of cannon fodder for the unwashed online masses!
But one of the questions that nobody has yet asked concerns our Northern neighbours and recruitment. Is Ulster’s pack looking a wee bit soft for next year?
Let’s take the debate back to a higher level for a second. At its core, rugby places an emphasis aggression, intensity, physicality and strength. Look at the great teams of the past and reel off the names. Thorn, Johnson, Matfield, Shelford, Dallaglio – all enforcers, each a man you wouldn’t like to cross at the bottom of a ruck.
In ice hockey, a sport with little enough overlap with our beloved union, the role of the enforcer is hallowed. They’ve even made terrible Hollywood movies about it.
An enforcer’s job is simple.
You don’t need silky skills, you don’t need great athleticism, your job is to be violent. The enforcer is expected to respond aggressively, be the first man into a brawl and in particular, to ‘react’ (often with a fist) to violence against star players.
Leo Cullen & Alan Quinlan by another name basically.
As the excellent WOC blog once put it:
Great packs of forwards have a couple of lightning rods, explosive enforcer type characters who will ensure that nobody dishes out any unfair hurt on their team. In general nobody likes these players, except the fans of the team they play for.
Even currently, look around any of the great packs in Europe and the ‘enforcer’ type (or usually types) are easy to spot. Clermont have, an albeit ailing, Hines and Cudmore. Toulon carry Big Bad Bakkies, Ali Williams and JMFL.
Gorgodzilla & Lawes are other origins of the species. Tough, hard bastards that wouldn’t think twice about walking on you at a ruck or smashing you with a slightly ‘mistimed’ tackle. Or eating your scrum half.
Let’s take this back to the provinces, particularly the Champions Cup contenders.
At Leinster and Munster, it’s fairly easy to see where that dog comes from.
Down south, Paulie and Donners are both ‘men of the cloth’ so to speak, second rows that not many would cross. Add in D. Ryan and POM, the latter has come good on his early hardman promise this year, and you’ve a pack with some snarling aggression. Whatever about ‘gameplan’ (or even ‘backplay’!) Munster won’t be pushed around, that’s for sure.
In Leinster, while Leo is a huge loss to the ‘enforcer quotient’ there are plenty of young pups ready to take the mantle up. Ruddock, most notably, fills this role with aplomb, particularly at ruck time. Although less overt than a POM for example, he’s ridiculously powerful (as illustrated by his rip from three Glasgow players in the Rabo final). He also seems to like a scrap.
Despite Mike McCarthy’s recent Rabo histrionics, he too slots into an aggressor role through choke tackles, first up tackling, some ‘questionable’ rucking and general leadership, despite his size. Add in new boy Kane Douglas (all 6’8 of him), a noted powerhouse, the sheer ferocity/borderline nature of Healy and a small matter of the Tullow Tank (a man who’s no stranger to unbridled aggression) and there’s plenty there to fill the gap.
Picking up the slack
And then we look up north. If Leo is a big loss for Leinster (despite his form last year), then Johann is a huge one for the white knights. Ulster have struggled slightly in big games in the past few years for a variety of reasons (the Leinster Rabo knockouts, Northampton at home and Sarries in Twickers come to mind). The forwards seem to have turned the corner this year, after being slightly powder puff in 12/13, but the losses will make a big dent.
Ulster’s starting pack next year, fitness pending, could be:
Murphy, Best, Fitzpatrick/Herbst, VDM, Tuohy, Henderson, Henry, Big Nuck Wulliams.
Other than Tuohy, where’s the bite? Henry is an excellent, international level 7 with the engine to compete with anyone. But does he strike fear into opposition players like, say, an O’Brien or Gorgodze?
Williams is sheer physicality, but as we saw in the Rabo Ravenhill game, perhaps doesn’t have the subtlety that many great enforcers have, and doesn’t influence the game enough away from his carrying.
Tuohy certainly fits the bill, and keeping him fit will be very important to Ulster. Baby face Henderson certainly has the sheer power to become this type of ‘lightning rod’ player for Ulster, but at the moment does more in the loose than the tight for me. This will come with age, and next year, Big Iain needs to come into his own to provide some aggression back up.
New man VDM is an unknown to me, and a bit of Saffer beef to replace Muller would be perfect. At 18st 2lbs and 6’5, he’s more Mike McCarthy than Damien Browne, but we’ll trust Humph’s recruitment and reserve judgement until he arrives.
Of course, big backs like Mccloskey, and particularly Trimble and Marshall can take up some of the slack here too. Andy is always a good man for a scrap and looks in fine form.
Overall, this period of ‘transition’ has crept up on Ulster somewhat, particularly the Humphreys loss. It could be a long year if some of these young bucks don’t turn into mean-spirited bastards. Take Henry, Best and potentially Henderson or Tuohy out of that first choice pack, and it doesn’t look too capable of just-inside-the-law shenanigans and getting through the tight work that often defines Rabo success.
Any chance we could get a copy of ‘NHL Big Hits & Injuries’ for the team dressing room?
Do you think Ulster’s signings and squad depth are a worry for Anscombe, or can they continue to punch up with the big boys?