Context is everything in sport these days, and in European rugby more so than most.
A quick glance at the final score of this contest at Ravenhill could lead you to believe that Leinster were twice as good as Ulster on the night. Then you could even explore the stats a little further and say that if Ruan Pienaar had brought his placekicking boots it would have been a draw.
But you would need yet more information to have the full picture. This is the RaboDirectPro12 we're talking about here. A league where Newport-Gwent Dragons can finish 7th and fail qualify for the Heineken Cup when all 5 teams below them do.
It's a major European rugby competition spanning four nations yet with just two matches to go, a team with every chance of making the playoffs is forced to rest several of their key players on account of another more important match the following week.
To put it more simply, this was a game that really didn't matter. This insignificance was born out for me by the fact that in all the media build up I didn't see any reference to Ulster and Leinster contesting the first ever interprovincial match back in 1875...and trust me, everyone ALWAYS drags that little nugget up at some stage before these two teams go at it.
Having said all of that, this match DID really matter to me whatever the context. It was my first ever visit to Ravenhill, and even without the final score I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.
As for the rugby itself, although Joe Schmidt picked a very strong side, you could clearly see with the style of play they were employing that their mission was to get in and out of Belfast with as few injuries as possible, and who could blame them.
They certainly started at full throttle and were rewarded when David Kearney and Fergus McFadden, both unusually sporting head-strapping, powered up the middle into the Ulster 22 to allow Eoin Reddan to take centre stage and keep the phases moving at a quick tempo before a perfectly weighted miss-pass found Kevin McLaughlin in enough space to get over the line.
Johnny Sexton added the extras and I thought the home fans around me (and I MEAN around me as it turned out I was sitting on my own amongst what seemed like an entire stand-full of Ulstermen!) were a bit harsh on their defence. But it wasn't long before their attention was turned towards referee John Lacey.
I was sitting directly in front of one particular supporter who was the Ravenhill equivalent of me at the RDS – every penalty awarded to Leinster by Lacey was “further proof” that he was giving “everything” to the visitors! His anger and colourful-language usage increased with each raising of his arm. Strangely he was silent when Ulster got penalties!
I was also interested to see just how contentious Johann Muller's try was when I got home (couldn't see a thing from where I was sitting) – now don't get me wrong, it was the result of some good work by Andrew Trimble and others in the build up but with a “try or no try?” question I can't see how that could be given.
I could be cheeky and call into question the “local” accent of the TMO when he said “you may award the try” but instead I'll just say that whatever about Lacey's amount of penalty calls against Ulster on the night (11 in all as opposed to 10 against Leinster), to be handed a very dubious touch-down should at least cancel it out! Plus we must not forget, of the eight points that Pienaar left on the field, six of them were from penalties.
On top of all this, not only were the home side missing Stephen Ferris but throughout the course of the game we saw the cotton wool wrapped both Chris Henry and Pedrie Wannenburg and whatever the significance of a match you can't go without such back-row talent without properly replacing them.
Biggest plus for Ulster on the night was definitely Paddy Jackson. He showed some nice touches around the park and clearly looks at home at this level, and I don't see why he won't see a lot more Heineken Cup action next season than the three sub appearances he got this time around.
But even with his good display there was only ever one out-half in control. One key feature of Leinster's play all season has been an ability to get a score shortly after being scored on themselves, and Friday was no exception. Less than four minutes after both Ulster scores Sexton found himself lining up a kick at goal to strike back, and each time it was the result of pressure on or around the home 22.
And the best sight for me was the drop-goal. Please, please may they take that mentality to Bordeaux. The home crowd may have booed but had the roles been reversed they would have been ecstatic. Why plough through a series of phases on the line and risk injury when you can pop the ball over the bar and give yourself an 8-point lead with 13 minutes to go?
The ironic thing about that score is that it was to all intents and purposes Leinster's first real attack of note in the second half. The rest of the time they were holding their defensive line keeping out spirited attempts by the home side to get by, but they were either denied by one of Lacey's “unjust” calls or in one case a perfect execution of the choke tackle which turned it over for a Leinster scrum – I got the feeling that's when the boys in white knew their coach wasn't going to get the perfect Ravenhill send-off he probably deserved.
Elsewhere on the park for the visitors most of them seemed to be doing just what was needed without being outstanding...Fergus McFadden was doing his best Lifemi Mafi impersonation and on the rare occasions he did pass to his outside centre it was like BOD was doing everything he could to get the ball away from him, apart of course from one good burst down the middle before an extremely average pass. And of course it wasn't like the predictable Ravenhill downpours were doing much to help with the egg-chasing for either side.
So I certainly can't fault too many of the players on the night because as I said, this one really didn't matter. The structure of the European rugby season, built on the crumbling foundations of the amateur era as it is, meant Ulster Rugby's brains trust had to make a decision, much as they did when they came to the RDS in December, and I can't deny it was the right one. There will probably be no Pro12 playoffs for them this time around, but all going well next week, a Heineken Cup final berth will make it more than worth it.
Much like my trip to Belfast was more than worth the return journey on the Enterprise. Can't wait to go back – with the talent Ulster are bringing into the club plus the plans they have for the stadium, this match will no doubt become an even bigger stand-out date on the calendar with each passing year. JLP
Also this weekend
Friday, 20 April 2012
Saturday, 21 April 2012
Sunday, 22 April 2012