Ulster’s new breed of backline boys can return silverware to Belfast
Province have a host of exciting young backs coming off the Ravenhill production line
Michael Lowry has become a regular at fullback for Ulster. Photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho
A golden generation of homegrown backs have come and now gone since Ulster won their last trophy 15 years ago, but a batch of indigenous young backs may be set to become a new golden generation.
The closest Ulster came to ending that trophy drought was between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons. A backline featuring Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy and Paddy Jackson, as well as Ruan Pienaar, had the misfortune to run into a Leinster side at the zenith of their powers in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham in the first of those three campaigns.
The following season, with Tommy Bowe back from his four-year sojourn with the Ospreys and Stuart Olding emerging at inside centre, as well as Jared Payne overcoming the Achilles tendon which had blighted his first season with the province, Ulster ran Leinster mighty close in a Pro12 final at the RDS. They had topped the regular season table but had to move the final from Ravenhill as it was undergoing its redevelopment.
They were all back in harness the following season when winning all six games in a European pool featuring strong Leicester and Montpellier sides, before losing at home in the quarter-finals 15-17 against Saracens after having Jared Payne sent off in the fifth minute.
Then leading 9-0 until nearly the hour mark against Leinster in the Pro12 semi-final at the RDS, they were beaten 13-9 thanks to Ian Madigan scoring the decisive try after replacing Brian O’Driscoll.
Trimble and Cave share the record for the most appearances for the province, 229, with the former Ulster’s all time record try-scorer on 76, followed by Bowe on 62.
All of that golden generation bar Gilroy have either retired or moved on, with only Trimble and Bowe surviving from that night at the Liberty Stadium in May 2006 when David Humphreys’ 45-metre drop goal off both posts sealed a 17-15 win over the Ospreys and the Celtic League trophy.
Now though, there is a crop of homegrown young backs in Ulster, especially centres and outside backs, to rival any province in the country, even Leinster.
Five of them, along with four more from the academy, aged 24 or under, have represented the province this season, and to put this in context, with 74 appearances and 29 tries already, not to mention 15 tries in 33 Tests, Jacob Stockdale is almost an elder statesman at 24-years-old.
The next to break into the Irish team may well be Robert Baloucoune. The 23-year-old makes his first start in over a year on Saturday evening after recovering from a badly torn hamstring to make his comeback as a half-time replacement last week in the win over the Ospreys.
Already on Andy Farrell’s radar, he trained with the Irish squad before last year’s Six Nations, his game was honed and developed on the 7s circuit in the 2017-18 season. That, and the influence of Payne as defence coach, has made him into a very good defender, especially one on one in open spaces.
He reads the game very well, is a good learner, but above all is a quick, balanced runner in the manner of a Doug Howlett and a real finisher, as evidenced by the manner he took Darcy Graham on the outside with just a five-metre channel to work with at Murrayfield two seasons ago.
Completing tonight’s back three is the 22-year-old Michael Lowry, a three-time Ulster Schools Cup winner as an outhalf with RBAI. Will Addison’s injury woes created an opening which Lowry has grasped, with his covering of the backfield complimenting his footwork and his ability to beat opponents. A 10 by inclination, he has a good kicking game and has offered Ulster a second playmaker from fullback.
He’s small, as is the winger Rob Lyttle, who beats defenders for fun. That’s his X-factor, although he looks a good defender and is good under the high ball as well, it’s just a question of him proving his durability.
Also in the starting line-up on Saturday night is the 22-year-old James Hume, who in the absence of the injured Luke Marshall has effectively become Stuart McCloskey’s most regular midfield partner. He’s also played at 12 and on the wing. Very powerful, with good footwork, Hume has also defended well although by his own admission he needs to improve his distribution.
Another centre who looks the real deal is the 21-year-old Stewart Moore. Prior to this season he hadn’t started a game for Ulster, but he has ably filled in for McCloskey when on Ireland duty, and Moore could provide Ulster and maybe even Ireland one day with a passing, playmaking option at 12, but could be a 13 too.
Despite an injury ravaged underage career, there were several eye-catching moments, not least for the Irish Under-20s. He’s also an elegant balanced runner, maybe less explosive than Hume, but well capable of beating defenders, as he showed with a stunning try against Australia in the 2019 Under-20 World Cup. As well as his range of passing and offloading, he also has an educated left foot, and is an aggressive defender too, who can put in big shots and picks up intercepts.
There’s another crop coming through as well.
Hit hard by injuries and the unavailability of internationals, few wins would have given Ulster as much satisfaction as the sleeves-rolled-up win away to Connacht last December, when Dan McFarland picked Lowry at fullback, Hume and Moore were in midfield, and academy player Ethan McIlroy was on the wing.
Something of a bolter from nowhere, he made his debut while still in the sub-academy, and has since progressed to the full academy. His four starts to date have been on the wing, although he’s equally at home at fullback. Very difficult to stop when countering from the back field, McIlroy has looked particularly assured and brave under the high ball. But for a few bumps and bruises lately, he might possibly be featuring in the squad this evening.
Another academy player, Ben Moxham, played the last quarter off the bench that night in Galway, while still in the sub-academy. In helping to seal an eighth Pro14 win in eight games, Moxham became Ulster’s 42nd player used in the campaign, and he also featured off the bench in the subsequent interpros against Leinster and Munster. An outside centre-cum-winger, in the glimpses we’ve seen, Moxham looks very athletic and has since been upgraded to the full academy.
Looming rapidly, in every sense, is the jet-heeled 20-year-old Aaron Sexton, a winger-cum-fullback who is in his second academy year and made his debut off the bench in the preceding win away to Edinburgh. A proper sprinter, he represented Ireland in the 100 metres at the European schoolboys athletics championships, and holds the Irish Under-18, 100-metre record.
Sexton’s game has also been honed by a year on the 7s circuit, but he’s not just pure pace, for he is a balanced runner who can use his feet to check or change direction, and looks strong too.
There’s also the 19-year-old academy scrum-half Nathan Doak, son of Neil, who has an excellent kicking game and is a good reader of the game, and a 19-year-old centre Ben Carson.
Why such a sudden production line of home grown midfielders and outside backs again? Perhaps it’s cyclical, as these things often are. Kieran Campbell, the Acaemy manager, and his staff are clearly doing something right.
Dan Soper, who was Director of Rugby at RBAI and Banbridge RFC where Lowry and Hume began to flourish, is clearly an influential figure. A Kiwi who’s been in the province’s provincial environment since moving to Ireland in 1998 initially as a player with Banbridge and Ballynahinch, McFarland recruited him as Ulster’s skills coach at the start of the 2018-19. He will take over as backs coach when Dwayne Peel moves to Cardiff next season.
McFarland, true to type, has not been shy about these young tyros heir opportunities, but how he and Soper manager them over the next few years, and how they progress, will be fascinating.
Ulster’s backline boys
Robert Baloucoune (23, wing/fullback)
He followed his Senegalese father in playing football until he was 15, when persuaded by friends to take up rugby. Came through what is now Enniskillen Grammar School and Enniskillen RFC, reaching an Ulster Towns Cup final in 2017. A 6’ 4” flyer, Baloucoune spent most of the following season honing his game with the Irish 7s, bursting onto the scene with tries in the European wins over Racing and Leinster. He returned after a hamstring operation and over a year out when playing the second-half against the Ospreys last week.
Michael Lowry (22, outhalf/fullback)
Captain and outhalf on the RBAI side which won three Ulster Senior Cups from 2015 to 2017, when Hume was a teammate, and also Banbridge RFC, Lowry’s first season in the Ulster academy (2017-18) was largely a write-off due to a groin injury. With Will Addison sidelined, Lowry has become Ulster’s first-choice fullback, starting 14 of their 20 games since the resumption. May yet end up back at outhalf.
James Hume (22, centre)
A product of RBAI, where he also featured in three successive Ulster Schools’ Senior Cup triumphs, and Banbridge RFC, Hume played for the Irish Under-20s in 2018 and broke into the Ulster team when in the academy during the 2018-19 season. A torn hamstring stunted his progress the following season and he used the shutdown to work on his mental skills. Since the resumption, Hume has started 16 of Ulster’s 20 games in becoming Stuart McCloskey’s midfield partner.
Rob Lyttle (24, winger)
From Donaghcloney, Lyttle began playing mini rugby with Dromore RFC and reached an Ulster Schools Cup final with RBAI before switching to Methody the following season, just as Lowry, Hume and co were to embark on their three-in-a-row. Scored two tries on his debut off the bench against the Dragons in September 2016. At 5’ 9” and well under 90kg, Lyttle not only survives but thrives through his wicked footwork, witness how he stepped Hamish Watson in Ulster’s epic semi-final win in last September’s semi-final at Murrayfield. He is in the first season of a three-year deal, so clearly valued.
Stewart Moore (21, centre)
From Ballymoney in Antrim, where he began playing mini rugby at six, he played his schools rugby at Dalriada and Ballymena Academy. A torn MCL in his first year out of school was followed by a concussion issue which kept him out of the Irish Under-20s 2019 Grand Slam and a dislocated shoulder ended his Under-20 World Cup that year, although after tries in the win over England and a stunning effort in the defeat by Australia. A playmaking, left-footed 12 who can play at 13 as well, making nine starts this season. Elegant isn’t the word. Also contracted until 2023.
Ethan McIlroy (20, wing/fullback)
A goal-kicking fullback on the Methody team which won the Ulster Schools Cup in 2019, like Moore he made his debut off the bench in Ulster’s 54-42 defeat by Leinster in December of that year when still in the sub academy. He was part of the Irish Under-20s team which was on course for a repeat Grand Slam last year before the pandemic - it was his outrageous, out-the-back offload as he was being tackled into touch which set up Hayden’s Hyde’s try in the win away to England. Minor injuries have also stalled his career but he looks to be a fine, athletic footballer with wheels.