Ulster in the best shape ahead of Saracens

Timely return of heavyweights helps province dig out rare Dublin win, but Schmidt left 'frustrated' by referee Clancy after late pressure goes unrewarded


A decidedly mixed Rabo PRO12 weekend for the Irish provinces in advance of next weekend’s triple European whammy in London, and, of the three, Ulster undoubtedly emerged the healthiest. After three games without a victory, they arguably needed the win more than Leinster for a variety of reasons, and welcomed back a core of missing internationals to record a thoroughly deserved first win over their rivals in Dublin since 1999.

In the process, they moved two points clear of Leinster and within a point of Glasgow at the top of the table, while also giving themselves a timely fillip for next Saturday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final at Twickenham against Saracens. The latter maintained their leadership of the Premiership with a 22-13 win away to Wasps, who host Leinster in High Wycombe next Friday in the Amlin Challenge Cup.

Ulster’s 22-18 win over Leinster was just the restorative shot-in-the-arm which they needed according to their captain Johann Muller, one of their returning frontliners.

“We couldn’t ask for better preparation for Saracens next week. That is an outstanding Leinster side. I am unbelievably sore and everybody else in the team is exactly the same. That was one of the toughest and most physical games, if not the most physical game, that we’ve played this season. And I think that is exactly, exactly what we needed for next week. We’re going away against a magnificent side; top of the log in the Premiership. But we’re gonna go there with confidence and have a shot at it.”

“Most definitely,” agreed coach Mark Anscombe. “At the start it was about our performance. If we didn’t get the result I could have lived with that. It was about the performance. That’s what we needed.”

Showed character

Anscombe was particularly happy with the way his team protected possession and created opportunities, as well as the quality of their defence and finally the character they showed in an endgame pummelling which lasted fully six minutes into overtime.

“Every team has a dip, if you like, or whatever you want to call it, during the course of a season,” said Anscombe, who cited the absence of up to 22 players for a recent game, “and it’s a matter of how you respond to it and how you get yourselves out of it. One thing this group does is that they work hard and they support each other, and we knew if we did that, we would come out of it eventually.”

John Afoa is in New Zealand with his wife Theresa for the birth of their child today but is expected to return for training on Thursday and Saturday’s starting line-up.

“If you look at the last five years of the competition, what country has been the most successful in the competition? It’s been the Irish teams,” said Anscombe. “But we haven’t been part of it, and we want to be part of it. We’re growing as a group, we’ve still got ways to go, but we believe in each other and we’re going to give it our best shot. Sometimes it’s not good enough, but we’re not going to go out of this competition guessing.”

For Joe Schmidt there was no such consolation after seeing the end of his side’s nine-game winning run, which dated back to their defeat at Ravenhill before Christmas, and he scarcely concealed his “massive frustration” with George Clancy’s refereeing of the scrum and the breakdown.

“All we ask for is consistency. We conceded a penalty try from the first scrum that went down at Ravenhill, I’m not sure how many went down out there tonight. To say we are frustrated is an understatement. You’d understand if it is a one off, but we have had pretty contrasting control of the scrum with the same referee in two separate games.”

Admitting the defeat had probably cost Leinster a PRO 12 home semi-final, Schmidt cited the pre-match loss of Gordon D’Arcy “with a little bit of illness” and Brendan Macken before half-time.

“As a result I don’t think we were quite as fluent as we needed to be and on the back of that the slow ball makes it difficult to play. Looking ahead, I guess, for us next week, we have just got to hope that we can get a bit of speed into our ball. If we are able to do that I am pretty sure we can turn it around pretty quickly.”

Both Seán O’Brien and Fergus McFadden are expected to return this week, if not Jonathan Sexton. “He’ll be in at medicals tomorrow to see whether or not he’ll make the deadline of Friday,” said Schmidt. “We think it is probably going to be too tight and he won’t make it .”