Friday, August 23, 2013

Ulster-21 Leinster-19

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STANDS UP FOR THE ULSTERMEN

You’d think a sport would become pretty boring if all the media hype surrounding it featured just the two teams or individuals, but that is far from the case.

In golf we have the Ryder Cup, cricket has the Ashes while rugby in particular is very fond of handing out silverware after just two teams have locked horns…it’s not long since all the Lions hype finally died down and the Wallabies went from that disappointment to a similar one against the All Blacks…and even though that was actually part of a four-team tournament, the media copy was all about the Bledisloe.

For a while there towards the end of the noughties Irish provincial rugby was coming close to being all about Leinster v Munster clashes with the other two seemingly there just for a supporting role.  Remember now…this wasn’t MY perception of it, it’s more an idea of how the media here and indeed the wider rugby community would see things.

Thankfully with Ulster improving to a point where they’re a bounce of a ball away from trophies and Connacht getting themselves some impressive signings and regular Heineken Cup action, those gaps are closing and we’re not too far away from having four senior teams on this island who can hold their own with the very best and richest clubs from both England and France.

Maybe it’s about time we introduced a trophy (or indeed just re-introduced the old interpro one) each season for the top province based on Pro12 regular season performance? Just a thought…

Anyway… it was more than a pleasure for me to travel up to Ravenhill this weekend to see the next stage of the progression of the game up there, ie the opening of their new stands, one behind each set of posts.  Of course having one side of the ground completely bare took from the aesthetics somewhat, but you certainly left with the impression that this was an organisation determined to continue its rise to the top both on and off the pitch.

We took our seats in the Memorial Stand and had a great view of the action.  Sure - going by the lineups it was possibly more a warm-up for the two provinces’ British & Irish Cup campaigns than it was for the Pro12, but I very much doubt anyone in attendance was complaining; it was great to be back watching live rugby before a large crowd once again with another long promising season around the corner.

The visitors definitely started the brighter of the two sides.  Jimmy Gopperth not only landed all five of his attempts from the tee but also looked extremely comfortable quarterbacking the offence, once he got the ball that is - I can’t remember when I’ve seen a Leinster team resort to the box-kick so often, and it didn’t seem to matter which end of the pitch they were at either.

Still, for the most part it seemed to be working for them and it took Ulster infractions to deny them on more than one occasion…had Dominic Ryan not gone over the line for our only try early in the first half it would have been called back for the home side pulling down the maul but the touchdown made it a 13-0 lead.

But while Gopperth was happy to have some placekicking practice when the penalty chances came, the home side were more interested in going for the five-pointers - and once they got over their early knock-on yips they were rewarded with two converted tries before the break that sent them in ahead on the scoreboard.

Jared Payne’s finish for the first seemed strong, but here I have to fault not only Gopperth but also the Leinster defensive coaching setup because once again we saw players attempting a choke tackle at the wrong time. 

It’s a wonderful skill to have in your back pocket, but when you’re scrambling on your own line and unsure of the cover immediately behind you it’s an unnecessary risk in my opinion.  For me, priority number one in that situation is getting the man down and Payne, outside centre for the evening (possibly not for the last time this season for Ulster and down the line for Ireland), was able to barge through his fellow Kiwi’s attempt to hold him up and his momentum got him over the line.

As for their second try, it may have been similar in that it was from close range, but given that it was Nick Williams I’m not so sure any type of legal tackle is going to stop him when he gets into that kind of position.

Early in the second half the match returned to it’s early pattern of Leinster winning kickable penalties with Gopperth making them and the 5-point margin seemed safe enough but with the clock supposedly running out (they had a makeshift scoreboard alright but if the time elapsed was visible somewhere, I missed it) the home side upped the intensity and the Leinster defence, by this stage of course totally different to that which started the match, was unable to prevent Ian Porter levelling the scores and allowing James McKinney to kick the winning points.

Shortly after the restart Leinster had possession at halfway and perhaps if John Cooney’s umpteenth box kick hadn’t gone out on the full we could have had an interesting finish, but Ulster were able to see it through to the final whistle and their fans went home happy with both the result and the new facilities.

As a Leinster fans I have no complaints; it was just a preseason contest and I saw plenty for Matt O’Connor & his staff to feel good about throughout the side.  Noel Reid and Brendan Macken seem a lot more confident together as a centre pairing - no doubt the B&I Cup successes did them the power of good.

The scrums are going to be harder to judge from the stands now that there aren’t as many resets and the focus is now on the feed more than the hit, but hopefully that will be a good thing overall; we just have to give the new laws time to settle in across the game and hope the IRB won’t be forced to change them again too soon.

But as I have said before, when looking at Leinster’s prospects for the new season we shouldn’t look so much at those who have left, rather those who remain and this definitely includes the front row, yes, even Michael Bent!

All in all it was an enjoyable weekend up north - we stayed through to Sunday to catch up with some old friends and meet some new ones (one of whom requested that I describe her in my write-up as “svelte” and I’m happy to oblige!). 

Once the big screens go up in Ravenhill in the coming weeks, even without the fourth stand it will certainly be right up there with the top venues for pro rugby across Europe…hopefully when these two sides meet again there at the beginning of May they will both be vying for honours much like last season.

Next up for Leinster is the annual preseason pilgrimage to Donnybrook where the Northampton Saints come to town, no doubt with a score or two to settle.  No trophies on offer, but still a night that can’t come quickly enough.  JLP

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