Thursday, April 04, 2013

Fourteen years in the waiting

The reward for victory in Dublin was a lot more than 4 Pro12 points for Ulster, writes Ryan Cullen…

14 years is a long time. 14 years ago Bertie Ahern was the Taoiseach; Tony Blair was the Prime Minister and Bill Clinton the President. The Euro had just been established. Manchester United won the treble and of course Ulster became the first Irish province to conquer Europe.

A lot has happened since then and yet the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same when it came to Ulster visiting Dublin to take on their Irish cousins Leinster. It is for that reason then, when considered alongside the race for a home semi in the PRO12, that those final 10 minutes of backs to the wall defence which gave Ulster victory were amongst the most important of the season so far.

We all know that in modern European club rugby the Heineken Cup is king. Ulster would give up last week’s victory if that would guarantee victory this. Could Ulster have had a more important victory outside of that competition though? Certainly not to this observer.

The third of the Irish provinces for the best part of a decade, victory at Thomond Park in last year’s Heineken Cup QF and subsequent march to the final signalled to the rest of Europe that Ulster were a renewed force but the manner of defeat in last year’s final suggested they had some way still left to go. This victory doesn’t eradicate those doubts but it is a building block, like the ones built in Northampton and Castres before it, upon which the next step can be taken.

Sure it was not the full strength Leinster team and there can be little doubt that the introduction of the likes of O’Driscoll, Sexton and O’Brien would make Leinster a more formidable test. It was a similar team to the one that was good enough to take care of Glasgow the week before though, and we all saw what they did to Munster at the weekend. Ulster could also argue justifiably that the likes of Stephen Ferris, John Afoa, Tommy Bowe and Luke Marshall would improve their side too.

To worry about that, though, would be to denigrate the achievements of those playing in their stead. Ricky Lutton performed wonderfully well on his first Ulster start and Kyle McCall matched those standards when coming on to earn his first cap. Andrew Trimble showed the form that would ensure him a green shirt if he reproduced it at international level, whilst Craig Gilroy showed just how dangerous an open field runner he can be. Stuart Olding is proving to be an excellent addition to the squad and should feel aggrieved if Luke Marshall returns to the 12 jersey for the trip to Twickenham given his performance on Saturday evening.

Of course there were good performances all over the park on Saturday and singling out individual players doesn’t really do the team justice. That being said though, the backrow deserves a special mention. The sheer amount of quick ball generated by Ulster’s backrow was incredible. Right from the off they smashed their way through Leinster’s potential pinchers and gave Paddy Jackson the platform to put in his most complete performance of the season. Great credit must go to Leinster’s scramble defence as it surely isn’t too much to say that against almost any other club in Europe Ulster would have been out of sight by the hour mark.

For Leinster Ian Madigan was again the shining light. A 100% kick success rate in conditions which seemed very difficult to judge is nothing to be sniffed at. He made his tackles, kicked intelligently and showed good depth awareness throughout. As an Ireland head to head between him and Jackson, it was probably six to one and half a dozen to the other. It would be a lie to say Jackson’s kicking isn’t a worry in both the short and long-term though. I’m certainly glad Pienaar resumed kicking duties for Ulster.

Elsewhere, Leinster will be hoping their pack can step up a level when they take on Wasps in the Amlin this weekend. Wasps don’t represent the same forward threat as Ulster and Leinster will surely look to the keep the game tight, and the ball well away from Varndell and Wade. Whether Wasps defence will be of the quality Ulster demonstrated must also be questioned and thus I would expect Leinster to do the job on Friday evening.

Last week I spoke of the confidence a good performance away to Leinster would give the Ulster team so now they have defeated them and broken the RDS hoodoo, it is hard to be anything other than confident going to Twickenham. I think it’s fair to say Saracens are probably more physical than Leinster up front but have less behind. I am a particular admirer of Charlie Hodgson but when he’s working with a midfield of Farrell and Barritt, even his beautiful passing game will be tested against a strong Ulster rush defence. Whilst Chris Ashton, Chris Wyles and Alex Goode are very competent players, they don’t put the fear of God into me.

If Ulster gain parity at scrum and lineout I would fancy our chances. If Jackson holds his nerve and plays close to the gain line I think Ulster’s offloading game will cause Saracens lots of problems. If Ulster retain their discipline and don’t give Farrell too many chances to keep the Saracens scoreboard ticking along they should come out on top. That is a lot of ‘ifs’ but that’s how it is when you get to the QF of the Heineken Cup. Both sides are quality operators, it is simply about the performance on the day. For mine I expect to be sharing few celebration drinks in the Twickenham area with my Leinster friends come Saturday evening after a successful couple of days for Irish rugby in the English capital. Sadly for Munster fans though, I’m not sure it’s likely to be a 3 day bender.

P.S. I am glad the IRFU haven’t delayed too long over the Declan Kidney decision and have retained Smal and Kiss for the summer tour. Although they cannot be absolved of responsibility for the national team’s recent malaise, revolution is rarely preferable to evolution in rugby. Ireland aren’t a bad team, just one playing without confidence. With the return of the injured players, many of whom aren’t the over-the-hill past it generation some would have you believe, there is plenty for a new coach to work with. I know Ewen McKenzie has been installed as favourite for the job but I do wonder if he is the right man at this stage. Some European experience would certainly be preferable and there is a man in Ireland who knows the system, has proven himself at the highest club level and knows many of the players closely. I can understand why Leinster fans wouldn’t want to lose him!

I would also like to wish all the best to Declan Kidney. Whilst things have turned a little sour at the end of his reign, he has coached his country with distinction and deserves a lot of respect. It is undoubtedly the right time for a change but let’s not forget how long we had to wait for 2009.

P.P.S. Being a racing fan I couldn’t leave you without passing on my fancies for this weekend’s Grand National. Joncol looks like a lively outsider at a price that would buy a few rounds come Saturday night. He certainly isn’t the most fancied of the Irish invasion party but he is the one with the most proven class in my eyes. Amongst the home brigade I quite like Quinz despite his disappointing effort last year. Join Together stays longer than the mother in law as well so if he is still up come the home turn he could well be in with a chance. Best of luck to all and here’s hoping for a successful weekend all round!

My name is Ryan Cullen and I am a 25 year old Ulster season ticket holder. I was introduced to the game around 15 years ago and have loved it ever since. I have an interest in pretty much all sports though so don’t be surprised to see a few football (Liverpool), Golfing and Racing interests (to name but a few) thrown in from time to time.

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