Well then, that didn’t take long. No sooner have they been granted entry into the United Rugby Championship than two of the four South African sides contesting next Saturday’s final in Cape Town will be the Stormers and the Bulls.
Whether this is good for the competition or not, only time will tell but even amid the huge disappointment of last Friday’s 27-26 semi-final loss at the RDS to the Bulls, Leo Cullen could see the bigger picture and saw the advent of an all-South African final as evidence that the standards of the URC have shot up at a stroke.
“It’s what the competition has needed for sure. Down in South Africa it’s the number one game there. It’s what’s on the TV all the time and that’s the challenge for our guys to really understand. You’re up against the country with the world champions, you see the talent pool in terms of some of the big schools and universities. Everything will be feeding into the four franchises now so for our guys to understand that, like it’s a proper bloody challenge for us now.
“But it’s great, that’s what you want. You want to be able to test yourself against the best teams that are out there. It’s all the things we talked about, the threats and the dangers, you’re seeing it out there.
“And we need to be on our best, at our very best in these playoff games, and I don’t think we were at our best. So everyone needs to self-reflect, me included.
“What can we do better in these weeks because we have come off a huge win last week, short turnaround into this week? We’re not looking for any excuses. The Bulls had a six-day turnaround and they had to travel up here in multiple groups so you have to give a huge amount of credit as to how they have gone about their week and how they executed in terms of their plan because they were better on the day.”
The sense of anti-climax was compounded as the Leinster squad applauded an attendance that was rapidly dwindling from the 11,556 crowd which had turned up, which was not how they wanted to commemorate departing players and coaches.
“We probably just sit with the hurt, we’ve got to remember what it feels like and make sure we take the lessons from the last few weeks,” admitted captain James Ryan.
“It’s very tough and it’s hard to send legends of the club like Dev Toner and Dan Leavy off on that note. It’s just being at our best on the big days, being accurate on the big days and we weren’t.
“We definitely had chances to win that game, I can think of several examples when we were five/ten metres from their try-line and they stole the ball in the air. I called the lineouts this week, I’ve got to take responsibility for that and make sure the next time we’re playing on the big day the basics are nailed on. We weren’t quite at it and we have to take a long, hard look at ourselves.”
Ulster’s disappointment was even more acute, as a converted 84th minute try by the Stormers denied them a home final next Saturday in Belfast against the Bulls and former talisman Marcell Coetzee and extended their trophy drought to 16 seasons, dating back to their Celtic League success 2006.
“We didn’t deserve to win that game,” admitted head coach Dan McFarland.
“The third quarter was our opportunity to put that game to bed but we turned the ball over so many times that I always felt that they (the Stormers) were going to go on and win because at semi-final level you can’t be so profligate with the ball.
“Fair play to our lads. There was a lot of character, we never stopped fighting right to the death. It’s disappointing but I’m proud of their effort.”
The defeat was also blemished by Robert Baloucoune suffering an apparent hip injury and pending their return from South Africa yesterday casts a cloud over his fitness for Ireland’s tour to New Zealand, the squad for which is due to be named on Wednesday.