More focused Ulster to bounce back after dropping unbeaten run
My first visit to Ravenhill was way back in 1989 as a Munster schoolboy, which formed an impression which has been slow to change: a dour, grey, bleak and inhospitable place where getting a win was about as tough a proposition as could be.
Last Saturday evening all that changed with it a carnival experience of colour, charisma and celebration. I really enjoyed the match but was conscious from Friday’s article that Leinster having beaten the then European champions Northampton Saints in Franklin’s Gardens way back in 2000, Ulster could assume the hard work had been done.
Off the pitch Ulster were marvellous but on the pitch they were far from it.
The opening 40 minutes of that return match in Donnybrook in 2000 was extraordinarily quicker than the week before and Saints led 25-17 at half-time.
The good news for Ulster is losing by one point may free them up, unshackling the unbeaten run from their consciousness, particularly at home.
The celebratory mood was both very enjoyable and palpable but it can be a huge burden to carry. Compared with the 1999 winning team, there are are huge differences. Fundamentally, the ’99 team took each game as it came, with Simon Mason kicking every opportunity. They only thought about the final when in the semi-final and were far from burdened by hype and expectation.
All that said, Ulster were very poor in many aspects, such as 50 per cent goals kicked to Saints’ 100 per cent, or the 43 per cent possession (at home) over Saints’ 57 per cent. But in nearly every other facet Ulster were far superior: 42 per cent more metres gained in running for 443 metres, or 40 per cent more defenders beaten in getting well into double figures of 17.
The real telling statistic is the 166 per cent more clean line breaks Ulster created. At least four of them should have resulted in converted tries (28 points) but didn’t and they were beaten by that one point.
Therein lies the opportunity for Ulster; they are a really good rugby team but one that doesn’t quite know how to handle that charge. Northampton Saints were very, very poor the week before and made some crucial changes to their side for the rematch, which Ulster struggled to meet.
Their half-back pairing was vastly superior to the previous week and in the 28-year-old outhalf, the uncapped Stephen Myler, they had a cup match-winning game plan.
Although carrying for 74 metres, swashbuckling fullback Ben Foden had a limited role for the Saints, who prioritised field position and inside Myler, Lee Dickson at scrumhalf aided and abetted his outhalf beautifully.