Gerry Thornley: Ulster’s effort could signal the start of something
Once again Champions Cup quarter-finals provide richly entertaining fare
Leinster and Ulster fans show their colours during the Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
What is it about Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final weekend? It very rarely fails to deliver.
The four ties over the weekend produced 22 tries and 195 points, at an average of 49 per game. It was a similar story in the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals which produced 27 tries and 217 points.
It was a largely wild, madcap weekend. This was rugby, but not as we know it.
History has shown us that it has usually been thus too. Rewind to the 2009-10 season when Leinster, the defending champions, set the tone in tandem with Clermont Auvergne at the RDS on the Friday night when prevailing 29-28 in a riotously colourful, noisy and entertaining affair.
The next day Biarritz beat the Ospreys by the exact same score, while Munster beat Northampton 33-19 and Toulouse hammered Stade Francais 42-16.
History has also shown us that this tends not to be maintained in the semi-finals and final.
This was the seventh season in a row when the four quarter-finals average between 40 and 49 points per game. By contrast the semi-finals often dipped to the 20s, and last season was the first time in six years that the semi-finals proved, on average, more bountiful.
The atmosphere, coming after the more corporate audiences at Six Nations games, is noisier, more colourful and more tribal
Ever since Leinster’s free-scoring back-to-back triumphs in the 2011 and 2012 finals over Northampton and Ulster, the trend tends to continue come the final as well. Even with Leinster involved in last May’s decider in Bilbao, it was the second tryless decider in the last three years.
Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Something about the quarter-finals seems to liberate those involved, witness how Ulster had an almighty go against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium and how Racing and Toulouse approached their quarter-final in La Defense Arena. It may be cup-tie rugby, but teams are more intent on gambling for tries, more inclined to kick penalties for the corner, and are less fearful of making mistakes.
But with each passing round, the stakes are increased, there is more to lose and, perhaps inevitably, players are more fearful of making a mistake that can cost teammates a place in the final or a cup winner’s medal.
The atmosphere, coming after the more corporate audiences at Six Nations games, is noisier, more colourful and more tribal.
The 124,147 aggregate attendance for the quarter-final matches was up by 10 per cent on last season, and was also the highest in the last eight since the 2011-12 season.
The English and French clubs who are forever arguing for bigger slices of the financial pie on the grounds that, well, might is right, should take note of the common denominator. There were three Irish sides in the last eight that year as well, when the average was brought down by the 11,047 at the Saracens-Clermont quarter-final in Vicarage Road.
The lowest aggregate total of spectators for the quarter-finals since the 2001-02 season was three seasons ago, when a combined 68,122 attended the four quarter-finalists. That, of course, was the only year since then without an Irish team in the last eight.
The benefits for the tournament of having Irish teams in the knock-out stages were vividly illustrated at both Murrayfield, where the estimated 18-20,000 strong Red Army helped to create a record attendance for a quarter-final in the UK of 36,358, and at the Aviva Stadium.
Dan McFarland, a clever coach who has cut his teeth and knows his way around the Celtic block, always looked a shrewd appointment
There was an invasion of 12,000-15,000 Ulster supporters, who helped make it the occasion it was. A relatively small proportion of them would be able to acquire tickets to the same extent for an Ireland international and, if not to the same extent, this is perhaps largely true for Leinster fans as well.
Travelling to an away tie, provincial fans are more inclined to make a day of it and wear the colours. They will also usually have a more rehearsed array of songs. When they stood up and chanted their support for Ulster at the outset of the game, this in turn put it up to Leinster fans to demonstrate where their loyalties lay.
True, Ulster’s upturn started at the end of last season’s traumatic campaign, when an unbeaten five-game run culminating in their qualification play-off win over the Ospreys earned them a place in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Dan McFarland, a clever coach who has cut his teeth and knows his way around the Celtic block, always looked a shrewd appointment and despite only being able to start in August, so it is proving. They have made huge strides this season and on Saturday Dwayne Peel and Jared Payne devised attacking and defensive strategies that rattled and took the game to the champions. Throw Jack McGrath into next season’s mix (along with a few others) and their scrum can start to become a weapon.
It’s doubtful that such an army of Ulster supporters would have travelled to an away game in such numbers since, perhaps, making the trek down to the old Lansdowne Road for their final win over Colomiers in January 1999.
They’ll have returned home disappointed and with regrets, but also, importantly, with an increased sense of pride in how much Jordi Murphy, Marcel Coetzee, John Cooney, Stuart McCloskey et al left of themselves on that field.
Yes, you’d fear for how much last Saturday will have taken out of them and it is always hard for teams to generate that kind of emotion next time out.
Even the All Blacks couldn’t reproduce their first Test performance against the Lions a week later, and somehow Ulster have to pitch up in Glasgow next Friday after a six-day turnaround, before a potentially crunch trek to Edinburgh a week later, and then finishing off their regular season campaign at home to Leinster.
It’s vital that they at least qualify for the Guinness Pro14 play-offs and next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. But, on the premise that they do so, last Saturday at the Aviva felt like the start of something rather than the end of this season’s Euro journey.