It’s clear that Ulster are a club side making long strides of progress year on year. Next weekend could see the province secure a place in the Heineken Cup final for the first time since winning the trophy in 1999. While we have to praise the northern province for bringing through home-grown players like Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave and Paul Marshall, amongst others, it’s also obvious that Ulster’s foreign imports have played a huge role in the success.
If Ulster continue to grow they could join Leinster at the forefront of the club game. That would in turn increase the difficulty for young players to break through at the province. Coupled with their overseas signings, it may mean more Ulster-based players looking for moves abroad. In this week’s Exiled Irish installment, I look at four Ulster-bred players who have moved to the Aviva Premiership. As always, opinions on all of these players, and any I have missed, are hugely welcome. If you watch plenty of Premiership rugby, how do you rate these players?
Caldwell joined Bath at the start of this season after opportunities at Ulster had dried up. The 27-year-old originally broke into the set-up at his home province in 2005, eventually becoming first-choice for the ’07/08 and ’08/09 seasons. Two Ireland caps followed in May 2009, against Canada and the USA. However, the signings of Dan Tuohy and then Johann Muller pushed Caldwell down the pecking order and he made just 6 appearances in the ’10/11 season. Caldwell decided to move on to new pastures, taking up Baths’s offer and he has thrived since.
The 6’7″ lock has become an integral part of the set-up at The Rec thanks to his physicality and lineout skills. He has been ever-present in the first team, playing all six of the Heineken Cup fixtures and scoring two tries. While Bath haven’t had a vintage season, sitting 7th in the Premiership with one game left and winning only two of their Heineken Cup games, Caldwell has clearly benefited from his move. Another strong effort next season might see the second-row back in contention for international honours.
Coming through at underage level, it seemed nailed-on that Steenson was going to represent Ireland at the highest level. The outhalf was top points scorer at both the 2004 and 2005 U21 World Cups. In ’04, he guided Ireland to the final, where a New Zealand side including Luke McAllister and Jerome Kaino denied them a famous win. He subsequently graduated from the Ulster Academy as a genuine prospect. However, David Humphreys was still bossing it on the pitch for Ulster so Steenson took the ambitious leap of joining Championship side Rotherham Titans for the’06/07 season.
That move proved a success as Steenson amassed 264 points before joining the Cornish Pirates. That stint lasted also lasted single season before the ambitious Exeter Chiefs secured the young outhalf’s signature for the ’08/09 season. Steenson was key to the Chiefs to promotion in ’09/10, scoring 24 points in the play-off final. The Ulster man’s first season at Premiership level was a further success as the Chiefs finished 8th and Steenson was again top points scorer. This year,the 27-year-old has lost his place due to the brilliant form of Argentinian flyhalf Ignacio Mieres, limiting Steenson to just 7 starts. The Dungannon native is contracted to the Heineken Cup-bound club for next season and will hope to reclaim his place in the team.
It might surprise some Irish supporters that Best is still playing, but he’s actually only 33. He made his debut at Ulster in 2002 and would go on to make 122 appearances for the province, winning a Celtic Cup and a Celtic League. The flanker made his Ireland debut against the All Blacks in 2005 and was capped 18 times, including 4 substitute appearances off the bench at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Northampton enticed the aggressive back-row to the Premiership for the ’08/09 season and Best quickly established himself as first-choice, winning the European Challenge Cup in 2009. An 18-week ban for eye-goughing was an obvious lowlight.
In 2009, he captained Ireland ‘A’ to Churchill Cup glory in the United States. For the ’10/11 season, 6’3″ Best dropped down to the Championship to join current club Worcester Warriors. He helped his new team to promotion at the first time of asking. The Warriors have retained Premiership status for next season, with a likely final position of 10th. A broken arm has meant only 10 starts for Best this season, but he still has plenty to offer in terms of leadership and physicality. A brick wall of a man.
Warriors Profile: Neil Best
A current teammate of Steenson’s at the Exeter Chiefs, Andress also played alongside the outhalf at the 2005 U21 World Cup. The tighthead prop was on Ulster’s books for the ’05/06 season, but a reputation as someone with a poor attitude meant no appearances for the province. He moved to then-Championship side the Chiefs in 2007 and two impressive season at that level resulted in a switch to Premiership outfit Harlequins at the beginning of the ’09/10 campaign. Andress made 19 starts in his first year in London, but that dropped to 11 the following season.
The Belfast native made a return to the Chiefs for this season, but again opportunities have been limited (8 starts), mainly due to the strong form of Hoane Tui. That has led to Andress’ decision to join Neil Best at the Worcester Warriors next season, where he will expect first-team rugby. Andress is capped for Ireland ‘A’, winning the Churchill Cup with Best in 2009. A senior call-up has never followed. However, some strong displays from the 28-year-old next season would mean Ireland could create better depth at tighthead. Andress will be closely watched.