With Wasps relocating to Coventry, Leinster losing at home, Connacht in European contention for next season, Neil Doak as Ulster's new head coach, Les Kiss returning home to Dublin (for a while anyway) and South Africa around the corner it's been an action-packed week.
Ulster players, whether they realise it or not, have been given a huge opportunity; spending so much quality time with Kiss. Coaches, like most of us, judge players on their performance each weekend. Those performances are often fettered in team tactics and systems which may conflict with national strategies.
Had the Irish management not fully understood the Munster player during the Rob Penney regime, they may have judged performances on the forward pods waiting way out on the wing. This is at odds with how Ireland play so could have been detrimental to their participation with Ireland.
Sitting in the team room when the video nerd and coaches are analysing the opposition is extremely informative on how they view the players. I recall a former coach’s impression of certain individuals we were due to play changing dramatically once he had transferred to the new outfit.
On discussing this with him, it was the time spent during the week, really getting to understand the player’s character and impact on the culture of the squad that proved instructive. His influence was felt way beyond his pitch performance and it made him a crucial player, performer and leader. It also resulted in multiple caps for Ireland. This is often impossible to capture in 80 minutes of match day.
The best coaches/managers, like Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, MBWA; ‘manage by walking about’. It’s fascinating to learn how much effort McGinley put into the relationship with Frenchman Victor Dubuisson. He got out there and wandered around and built the relationship, be it on golf courses or Grand Prix.
Had he simply sat in his ivory tower how would McGinley have judged Dubuisson and utilised the French talent?
Kiss would have learned a lot about players in Ulster.
Likewise, it's no coincidence many Leinster players have been promoted by Joe Schmidt into green jerseys. David Kearney is a great example having proven himself in the white-hot heat of 'training sessions', then Rabo and then Heineken Cup matches. Schmidt knows and can trust Kearney under pressure.
Connacht's Kieran Marmion has played in a struggling side but consistently displayed real quality. To the winners go the spoils and with it Irish caps. Had the Irish management not invested time in Marmion's pedigree, promotion may have taken much longer.
Hence, Kiss’s Ulster stint should prove a huge fillip for players we’ve yet to see in an Irish jersey. But the flip side is also true in that players deemed quality from their weekend performances may be deemed unsuitable due to their weekday persona.
Kiss's interpretation of the fringe players must be extremely interesting especially after Ulster's loss in Zebre. Ulster made ten changes from the side that had handsomely beaten Cardiff Blues – six in the pack. Their new front row lasted only ten minutes with Declan Fitzpatrick being sent off for punching. Examination of the incident was instructive.
Fitzpatrick had blood streaming from his left eye. So I went back and replayed the incident. Zebre’s hooker Andrea Manici (who received the punch from Fitzpatrick) stood on the halfway line throwing into a five-man lineout; with Fitzpatrick at the tail 15 metres away. The Italian hit the front with Ulster’s Callum Black and Neil McComb pulling down Zebre’s pod just as dummy scrumhalf number six Mauro Bergamasco controlled the ball.
The Italians stayed patient and in reforming the maul around Bergamasco, the tail gunners from Ulster engaged. With the ball transferred to the tail, Manici protected ahead of the ball at which point Fitzpatrick entered, through the ‘gate’ in perfect technique fracturing the Zebre maul. Italian 100- capper Bergamasco had just transferred the ball backwards to loose head Matias Aguero as the red scrum cap of Fitzpatrick powered through. Bergamasco’s right flank was exposed and his right arm and hand found itself on Fitzpatrick’s head.
The touch judge’s yellow jersey blocked the camera at the crucial moment but, that said, Bergamasco’s right arm and hand remained on the left side of Fitzpatrick’s face. When they all hit the deck Fitzpatrick’s left hand was in contact with Manici’s right at which point Fitzpatrick unleashed his right fist while lying on the ground with little impact.
Fitzpatrick’s conduct may be an insight into Ulster’s, which Kiss is now more familiar with. His technique was perfect, his aggression equally so and his reaction to what was an attack on his right eye was most appropriate. What would you do? But his reaction as referee Peter Fitzgibbon took control was brilliant. As Fitzpatrick’s left eye leaked blood, Fitzgibbon calmly went upstairs. All the while Fitzpatrick stood in anticipation that the obvious would prevail.
It didn’t as neither the referee nor TMO could link the above paragraph to the blood and Fitzpatrick walked. Watch his reaction; he simply accepts his fate, takes off his scrumcap and walks off; what character for Kiss to witness. Whoever injured his eye, has none.
With both Leicester Tigers and Toulon in their European group, Ulster’s character is facing stiff tests. Tomorrow’s clash against league leaders Glasgow Warriors looks a real belter. I assume Kiss, from his sabbatical in Ulster, has spotted plenty more characters that will end up in green soon.