Ulster backs ‘on the cusp of breaking through’ as Ireland starters
Eddie O’Sullivan says Ulster’s exciting crop of backs talent are set to become regular starters in the Ireland side.
Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Michael Lowry, Stuart McCloskey and Ethan McIlroy have impressed for the United Rugby Championship semi-finalists.
“Baloucoune has a great chance of making the Test starting XV,” said former Ireland coach O’Sullivan.
Current coach Andy Farrell will name his squad on Tuesday for three Tests in New Zealand, plus two midweek games.
“McCloskey has got ahead of Bundee Aki on my terms, while Hume is putting pressure on Garry Ringrose, although it will be a hard one to overtake Ringrose,” added O’Sullivan on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sportsound Extra Time.
“There is a big doubt about Lowry going because of his injury, but they are all on the cusp of breaking through to the starting team.
“In the forwards, Nick Timoney has been impressive too, but he is coming up against Josh van der Flier.
“If any of the frontliners are unavailable, these young Ulster players would step in and wouldn’t miss a beat.”
Ulster ‘didn’t back themselves enough’
Ulster suffered last-gasp heartbreak as they went down 17-15 to Stormers in their URC semi-final on Saturday and O’Sullivan believes better game management would have helped them progress.
“They were in a great position at half-time and had the right plan to get the ball to the outside channels,” he added.
“The second half was where the problems started, they went into themselves a wee bit.
“They needed to kick on and they had some opportunities, not as many as they would have liked, because the territory and possession stakes went against them.
“They probably didn’t back themselves enough and kicked the ball away a few times. They could have had a two-score difference between the sides with 20 minutes left.
“They were trying to defend a lead and a five-point lead is a dangerous lead to defend.”
Backline ‘has come alive’
Despite that disappointment, O’Sullivan says the exciting back division provides optimism for the province, who he thinks are now “the second best team in Ireland”.
“Their backline has come alive, the McCloskey-Hume midfield axis has been huge,” added the 63-year-old, who led Ireland from 2001-2008.
“I’ve always been a fan of McCloskey – I think he’s a fantastic player. He’s a huge man and such a threat with the ball.
“He’s got the power game and he has a great passing and offloading game.
“Hume has really blossomed beside him with extra space, extra time on the ball. He has really come into his own.
“The improvement in Ulster’s back play has been outstanding. The pack have done really well but, for me, the backs have been the standout. Baloucoune, Lowry and McIlroy have been lighting it up.”
You can listen to the full interview with Eddie O’Sullivan on Sportsound Extra Time on BBC Sounds.