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.
Without doubt the performance of the fourth round was in the secondrow where USA Eagle Samu Manoa (one cap; turned down RWC 2011 to go to Saints!) was simply sensational. In every facet of the game he excelled and not just as a secondrow, but as a rugby player.
Can our ’rows learn from him and his style? Yes they can but as he is of Tongan descent and has an explosive power we Irish tend not to have.
There were parts of his game that all our boys can mimic: very combative at kick-off, where Myler landed the ball on a specific target for Manoa to challenge every time. With the slightly shorter Calum Clarke partnering him much pressure remained on his lineout until English international Courtney Lawes arrived.
Ulster paring Iain Henderson and Dan Tuohy were very quiet, carrying for a total of six metres, with Manoa making 33. But it wasn’t the total ground covered that impressed. His reading of the game, manifested in the regularity of his arrival on to the ball when his team needed go forward and redirection was impressive, as was his offload to a better placed running attacker. Suffice to say I would love to know what the Saints are doing in training to get such a return from their 27- year-old one-cap secondrow.
Ulster required a killer instinct in the confrontations, especially at the breakdown, which never really arrived and with Lawes’ and Manoa’s power and offloading there were far fewer breakdowns than the previous week.
In the absence of an expected home physicality Ulster required pace, which didn’t really arrive until scrumhalf Paul Marshall stepped in for the injured Paddy Jackson (Ruan Pienaar moving to outhalf). The ultimate irony occurred as the only man who could keep up with Marshall was Tommy Bowe, who did untold damage to his knee in the effort.
With Glasgow Warriors at home in round five I think Ulster, having dropped the unbeaten run, will bounce back much more focused for the away fight at Castres Olympic to ensure a home quarter-final. Then the colour, charisma and celebration can really fly.
The draw for Munster, like Ulster, is most favourable, with Rob Penney’s side travelling next week to Edinburgh before hosting Racing Metro 92; this should bring a tad more joy than many fancy.
As for my Christmas, Monica has tasked me with doing the Brussels sprouts!