Every Friday, Caolán Conroy provides his take on three different sporting developments across the UK and Ireland, and shares his predictions for match-ups ahead. This week he looks at Ulster Rugby, shares his thoughts on a recent podcast featuring Mick McCarthy and shares his Ulster-born XI team of the week.


World Cup winner set for Ulster

With Christian Lealiifano set to leave Ulster after next weekend’s European Cup clash against Wasps, a replacement seems to have finally been found for the fly-half position. Stephen Donald, the man who scored the winning penalty in the 2011 World Cup final, is set to sign for the province. Now aged 34, Donald has been playing his rugby in Japan this season. With the Japanese season finishing this weekend it’s very timely for Ulster.

Lealiifano will return to his parent club the Brumbies, whom he has been on loan from. The loan move was a considerable success and pulled Ulster out of a hole with the absence of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. We all hope that Kiwi Donald can have the same impact when he signs. I can see why Ulster has gone down the route of signing short term replacements if they expect Jackson and Olding to return. However, the fly-half position is arguably the most important position in the team and stability in this position would surely have strengthened their attack. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but maybe at the start of the season they should have signed a long term addition or broken the bank to secure Lealiifano for the full year.

Getting back to matters on the pitch, Ulster face a crunch game this weekend when they take on La Rochelle in Belfast. La Rochelle are table toppers and have been extremely impressive in their debut Champions Cup season. Ulster lie in second place but know that two wins from their last two pool games should see them top their group and qualify for the quarter-finals. They’ll certainly be up against it on Saturday, but home advantage will be massive. It promises to be a hugely entertaining game.


Irishman Abroad meets Mick McCarthy

Anyone who knows me knows I love a good podcast. Sports podcasts are my thing and there are plenty of excellent ones out there. One podcast that I listen to from time to time is “An Irishman Abroad” podcast from Jarlath Regan. I must admit, what really makes me tune in is when there is an ex or current sporting personality or sports journalist being interviewed.

Regan’s recorded some incredible conversations with the likes of Keith Gillespie, Kevin Kilbane, Vincent Hogan, Oisin McConville, and Donald McCrae. Other interviews with Seamus Coleman, James McClean, and Jason Sherlock left me disappointed. Maybe my disappointment is less to do with Jarlath’s style and possibly more to do with how open the guests were. After all, getting Seamus Coleman excited about anything can’t be an easy task, such is his easy-going nature.

This week Regan released his interview with ex-Republic of Ireland captain and manager Mick McCarthy. McCarthy, now manager of Ipswich, was honest and highly entertaining. I discovered things I hadn’t known about him – did you know that he had played for Lyon in the late 1980s? I wish more modern day players would test themselves in foreign leagues like McCarthy and others of that era – like Liam Brady, Gerry Armstrong and Tony Cascarino did.

McCarthy’s interview reminded me about what a good job he did, and how unlucky he had been as the Irish Republic’s manager. That team played good football, beat many top teams and were the last Irish group to qualify for a World Cup. It got me thinking, at the minute it looks more and more likely that Martin O’Neill will leave as Ireland manager. Stoke City are rumoured to be in talks with O’Neill about replacing Mark Hughes. If Ireland did need to find a new manager then Mick would be an ideal fit. He’s got the t-shirt, knows the role and worked with many of the players at club level. He would be my first choice. Who would yours be?


Ulster-born XI team of the week

Conrad Logan: Recorded a clean sheet away to Cardiff in the FA Cup as Mansfield live to fight another day

Conor McLauglin: Helped Millwall progress in the FA Cup with a comfortable third round win

Gareth McAuley: Clean sheet for West Brom as Alan Pardew picked up his first win as boss

Mark Haughey: Two wins and two clean sheets for Linfield this week

Daniel Lafferty: Promising performance after a few games on the bench as Sheffield United made it through to fourth round of the FA Cup

Chris Brunt: Recorded an assist for West Brom as they beat Exeter 2-0

Jamie Harney: Hat-trick hero for Cliftonville as they beat Warrenpoint in cup after extra time

Sammy Clingan: The assist master striked again for Glenavon versus Carrick Rangers

James McClean: Also bagged an assist for West Brom against Exeter

Steve Davis: Southampton put their poor form behind them as they beat Fulham and passed the FA Cup third round. Davis was arguably their best player

Paul Smyth: Followed up his debut goal for QPR with his first start for the club