Academy production line is delivering at Ulster, but still a little shy of Leinster blueprint

Debutants Ethan McIlroy, Jack Regan, Azur Allison and Stewart Moore after the PRO14 Round 8 League clash between Leinster Rugby and Ulster Rugby at the RDS, Dublin . Photo by John Dickson / DICKSONDIGITAL
Debutants Ethan McIlroy, Jack Regan, Azur Allison and Stewart Moore after the PRO14 Round 8 League clash between Leinster Rugby and Ulster Rugby at the RDS, Dublin . Photo by John Dickson / DICKSONDIGITAL
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There are a number of ways of reviewing Friday night’s Guinness PRO14 Irish derby thriller in Dublin when Leinster and Ulster served up an Irish derby Christmas platter scoring 14 tries between them.

Hosts Leinster scored eight of those tries which ensured a 54-42 victory.

They demolished Ulster in the first half hour, by which time they had secured the try bonus point.

The half-time score read 33-14 and to be honest, Ulster fans probably feared the worst with memories of the early season away defeat to Cheetahs, 63-26, and last season’s thumping in Limerick, 64-7 by Munster.

By the time Leinster hit the half-century, Ulster had scored three tries and trailed 54-21. They then went on a remarkable 21-0 points scoring run, securing a try bonus point into the bargain.

It was a remarkable festive derby and while neither side had few of their big name stars included - it is the annual player rotation period over this part of the season - the tie did not lack entertainment.

Much was said about Ulster picking up a try bonus point and scoring six tries, but the bottom line is they once again suffered another loss at the RDS to their rivals Leinster, and went 12 points behind the current Conference A leaders in the PRO14 Championship.

Leo Cullen’s Leinster had the job done by the time 30 minutes was up on the clock and the way they did that is what Ulster must focus on as the move forward. The Blues seemed to be able to turn it on and off as they made it eight from eight in the PRO14 this season.

That is the negative side of Friday night for Ulster to ponder - but there were still a lot of positives in defeat.

Leinster have set the blue-print for Irish Provinces in terms of being able to continually produce quality talent after talent off their Academy conveyor belt - let’s be honest the other Provinces are envious of it.

Yes, Province in Blue have more resources available and a large playing pool to choose from, but they still have the knack of producing time and time again - the latest being centre Tommy O’Brien who made his first senior appearance.

But turning to Ulster, Kieran Campbell and his Academy management team have been making great strides in identifying talent and progressing it.

Friday night was a further endorsement of what they have been doing as we saw four new debutants off the bench - Ethan McIlroy, Azur Allison, Stewart Moore and Jack Regan, while there was a first senior start for Dave O’Connor - his brother Alan captained the side against Leinster as he marked his 100th appearance.

Throw into the mix August Kernohan and Angus Curtis, who was to suffer a sickening lower left leg injury on 24 minutes, there is an abundance of talent emerging and the Academy/Sub-Academy is delivering.

An injury to Rob Lyttle in the 24th minute against Leinster did provide an earlier than expected opportunity for McIlroy to make his debut.

And the youngster, who nine months ago was kicking five conversions in the Ulster Schools’ Cup final as Methodist College Belfast defeat Campbell College, certainly grabbed his opportunity with both hands.

He was the stand-out of the four debutants - although it started somewhat shakily when he managed to throw one of those no-look passes into touch.

But he bounced back strongly, was good in the air and it was from one of those takes, followed by a neat chip ahead that led eventually to Ulster grabbing the bonus point securing fourth try.

He contributed much after that as well and showed well in the stats - his defence perhaps lacking, but something for him to work on and certainly for a sub-Academy product he can reflect on a positive debut.

Moore, Allison and Regan may not have got the same game time, but certainly showed they are more than ready to step up to the next level and they will all, with McIlroy, be eager to learn further from what is a quality coaching set up at senior and Academy level at Kingspan Stadium.

One other player worthy of mention, and another Academy product, is Greg Jones who joined Ulster from UCD in 2017 and made his debut in that season and now has 15 caps.

Playing at number 8 against Leinster, after a quiet first half, his second half contribution was immense and he scored two tries.

He gets a handful of games every season, but I believe getting the opportunity to play consecutive games would provide him with the platform to show what he really has to offer - although it is difficult to displace Marcell Coetzee from the first team at the current time - except of course during these periods of rotation.

Moving on, Ulster continue their Irish derbies into the festive period with two home games against Connacht on Friday night and then a week later against Munster.

Dan McFarland is still hurting from Ulster’s first home loss to the Western Province in over 60 years almost a year ago and will want to right that wrong.

It is expected there will be changes again to the Ulster line-up - maybe even 14 again as there was for the trip to Dublin.

But with that Munster game looming large and then a crunch away tie to Clermont in the Heineken Champions Cup, coupled with the IRFU player welfare programme, Ulster need to focus on what they need to do to secure second place in PRO14’s Conference A - Leinster are unlikely to be caught.

One thing for certain after the visit of Connacht McFarland and his Ulster squad can reflect on what has been a full year of progress - even if a win in Dublin still eludes them.