Watching Ulster from the commentary box last weekend I was trying to wrangle my thoughts in the aftermath of their United Rugby Championship victory (URC) over the Bulls. My main preoccupation was in trying to weigh up the respective performances in Belfast against the elevated standard required when the Champions Cup resumes this weekend.
The Bulls huffed and puffed and faffed around when they were physically dominating their hosts in the collisions, but could not convert it into points often enough to matter. I was a little shocked at how poor some of their basic handling and passing skills were, especially when you have talent like Canan Moodie and Kurt-Lee Arendse in the back three. It was largely when Ulster kicked poorly to them that they were able to unleash their attacking ability.
The South African side could have won the game, should have gone away with a losing bonus point but the concession of a silly penalty in the dying minutes allowed Ulster replacement scrumhalf John Cooney to snatch that from the visitors’ grasp for what transpired to be a very unfulfilling night. The Bulls were long on perspiration and short on inspiration.
It certainly won’t suffice when Jake White’s charges head for Toulouse at the weekend. Ulster will be happy to have won the match, but they too have many performance wrinkles to iron out ahead of their trip to Dublin on Saturday evening. The scope for improvement is significant and they will have to find a way to bridge that gap if they want to topple Leinster.
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I wonder what the European preamble will be like for last weekend’s combatants in Belfast as they embrace new assignments, the subtleties and tweaks that can transform their respective chances of success.
The build-up is not an exact science and is always picked apart in the aftermath. Ulster will take the positives where they lie, buying into the belief that the momentum of winning can provide a catalyst for future success. Results are a byproduct of performance. Confidence can come from both the outcome and the manner of the victory. Ideally you take a double helping.
I played almost 11 years of my career losing clutch matches before rerouting that trajectory with a deserved success against the Leicester Tigers in Edinburgh (2009). That season there was a slightly different emphasis, and attitude that I believe is so important to getting to the knockout stages.
It centres on a team’s capacity to broach a level of performance that if attained the match will be won regardless of the opposition. That belief or confidence is reinforced or eroded at every training session or match in a season, and it is not always contained in victories. You can perform poorly and still win or perform well and still lose.
An example of this came in the early games in Joe Schmidt’s reign as Leinster coach. We lost matches but strong foundations were built. It contrasted with our earlier travails in Europe, especially the European defeats to Perpignan and Munster.
The glitches in our temperament, our game plan, were readily exposed once the margin for error shrunk as the pressure was ramped up. Those margins are finer this week, the pressure unevenly distributed.
The Bulls go to Toulouse and Ulster to Dublin, very much as second favourites and aware that unless there is an appreciable improvement from their clash in Belfast, they’ll be in trouble. The South African side offered a brutally simplistic game plan that relied on large men smashing into opposition players. Toulouse have players who are just as big so as a gambit it won’t take the Bulls where they want to go. They need to play with more adventure, and be less one dimensional. It’s not as if they don’t have the players.
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Watching Arendse and Moodie combine beautifully for a try early in the first half against Ulster offered a frustrating reminder that they do have players with a cutting edge in attack, gamebreakers. Instead, they preferred to slow down the game, trying to grind Ulster into the dust, but lacked imagination and instead relied on Ulster kicking the ball to them as a launch pad.
Ulster have a middling to-do list arising from that match and will be scrambling to fix things before they make the trip to Dublin. Their attack, when it clicks, is superb and is a reminder of the exciting young outside backs residing up north.
Try scoring sensation, hooker Tom Stewart, is making full use of Ulster’s superb lineout maul in which former Wallaby international Sam Carter has a substantial input. The Bulls infringements gave Ulster access to the visitors 22 and if Leinster extend the same latitude on Saturday evening, then they could be in a bit of trouble.
Robert Baloucoune’s try was a beautifully executed move pulling the Bulls’ defence apart. Stewart Moore’s footwork and delayed pass off the lineout gave the excellent David McCann a clear run between two of the visiting defenders and it secured quick ball well over the gain-line.
Mike Lowry’s timing and angle on to the pass created a two-on-one in the wide channel and he gave Baloucoune a run-in with barely two and a half minutes on the clock. Unfortunately, it was the last time that the flying Ulster wing touched the ball in a meaningful capacity, in space created by an Ulster attack.
That try represented Ulster at the very best and rendered them a formidable attacking proposition to defend against, but ultimately, they struggled to impose themselves on the game and got dragged into a match that the Bulls wanted to play.
The game management of Nathan Doak and Billy Burns constantly invited pressure back on to their team, and while the kicking strategy was easy to identify the execution wasn’t up to scratch with contestable kicks drifting too long or the folly of kicking off the back foot there for all to see.
Unless Leinster are similarly ill disciplined, Dan McFarland’s side are unlikely to be granted the same easy and free access into the opposition 22. On a more positive note Ulster found a way to win against a side that beat Leinster at the RDS in a URC semi-final last season.
Leo Cullen’s side represent a significant jump in quality. They almost came undone against the Stormers but will field largely a brand-new team this week. If Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose and Caelan Doris come through the return to play protocols then Jason Jenkins is the only player likely to survive in the starting team from last weekend to this Saturday.
The Irish internationals will bring the positive experiences of the Grand Slam back to the province. The composure under pressure in clutch matches, and the final match aside, they were able to thrive despite the level of expectation and pressure.
There are a few players with limited enough game time hungry for minutes such as Robbie Henshaw, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ryan Baird and Ross Byrne; the match comes at a perfect time for them and for Leinster. The mental approach that Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has been working on, asking them to embrace the chaos, will also translate to the province and lend itself to a swift integration.
The only thing certain this week is that Johnny Sexton will not be playing, for everyone else it will be about settling back in and focusing on the performance. That is where they do their best work.
As Connacht and Munster are on the road this weekend in Europe both were left to ponder the URC that they have temporarily left behind as the dust settled on last weekend. Seven points separate four teams in the top eight.
Connacht’s renaissance in the last four weeks has been hugely impressive. Munster will be trying to figure out exactly what went awry against the Glasgow Warriors. It will have to be a quick study as they prepare in Durban to face the Sharks.
It was a game of two halves, neither of which proved particularly satisfying for Munster head coach Graham Rowntree. This season was always going to be a challenge for Munster. Before Christmas I suggested that it might be two steps forward and one step back.
The timing and the manner of the Glasgow defeat is ill timed. The Munster coaching group will demand a response, but it is the players who must own it and drive it. The outhalf conundrum is far from settled.
Joey Carberry is still looking well short of best, and an excitable Jack Crowley is eager to be given a chance in the 10 shirt, having been moved around to accommodate and fill holes in the backline. Rowntree can’t keep kicking that can down the road, starting Carbery and removing him before the final quarter.
Does Crowley need to be accommodated in his favoured position of outhalf for Munster to have a fighting chance on the road? We will have an answer to the first part of that question on Friday lunchtime and the second a little over 24 hours later on the pitch.