Jackson’s doubters were silenced in Swansea, writes Ryan Cullen…
Sometimes in sport pressure can become all consuming. The disappointment amongst fans can destroy a player’s confidence, press criticism can take its toll and the constant defence of a coach can be withering.
How pleasing it was then to see Paddy Jackson answer all his critics and put in a man of the match performance in Swansea on Friday night. Though not running the backline with as much fluency as we saw against Treviso, Jackson’s performance off the tee was one of a man who had rediscovered his timing, and perhaps more importantly, his confidence.
The 21 year olds 6 from 6 return was the undoubted highlight of staccato encounter in which both teams started with close to full strength line-ups. Seemingly affected by the importance of the game as a marker for future intent, neither side were capable of opening their game up and 5 point opportunities were few and far between as a result.
Ulster’s performance against an exceptionally strong Osprey’s pack will have undoubtedly pleased Mark Anscombe though. Taking on a pack with 5 Lions, Ulster’s set piece looked safe and solid and they ultimately triumphed at the breakdown, leaving Mark Anscombe with some big decisions to make before this Friday’s clash with Leicester in the Heineken Cup.
John Afoa will undoubtedly return provided he is confirmed as match fit, harsh as that is on Declan Fitzpatrick. That is the easy bit for Anscombe though; who he fills the back 5 positions in the pack with is where he will earn his money. Henderson or Tuohy alongside Muller? Henderson, Henry and Williams or Diack, Henry and Wilson? I don’t believe you can leave a fit Iain Henderson out currently and given the power of the Leicester pack he and Dan Tuohy would be my choices at 5 & 6.
Chris Henry, who is starting to really hit his straps again, will start at 7, leaving Anscombe to choose between Wilson and Williams. Most casual observers would assume Williams is a nailed on starter, but that is to forget the qualities Wilson can bring. Experienced, aggressive in defence and exceptional at the base of the scrum, Wilson is the kind of player who does a lot of good work without always getting the credit he deserves.
It would still be a surprise to see Williams left out of the first XV but there can be little doubt who would be likely to make the bigger impact off the bench if the game is tight with half an hour to go.
The backline should be a much more straightforward selection process now the unfortunate Craig Gilroy seems likely to miss out due to injury. This should allow Jared Payne to move back to 15 and Tommy Bowe to come in on the wing to partner Andrew Trimble in a formidable looking back 3.
The return of Ruan Pienaar will be the only other decision Anscombe will have to make. A few weeks ago the return of the mercurial South African couldn’t have come sooner but since then Paul Marshall has hit form and played well in the past three games. It would still be a surprise if Pienaar didn’t start but it isn’t the formality some might think.
So Ulster will go into the game at pretty much full strength and in good form, a combination that usually sees to pretty much anybody when playing at Ravenhill. Four points is the minimum requirement and denying Leicester a bonus point may also prove crucial in the long run.
For their part, Leicester has started the season fairly well and certainly won’t come to Ravenhill fearing Ulster. Their scrum demolished a solid looking Northampton outfit regularly at the weekend and they always do the basics well. With quality half backs and the lethal Vereniki Goneva likely to start, Leicester has plenty of firepower that would cause any team problems. As always, the breakdown will be absolutely crucial and the battle between Salvi and Henry is likely to be a cracker.
Despite the cloud hanging over the competition, the first weekend of the Heineken Cup is always one to savour and this year promises to be as good as ever. Ospreys v Leinster, Toulon v Glasgow and Racing Metro v Clermont are all games that could grace a quarter final whilst Edinburgh v Munster will be an excellent test for Munster credentials.
I have also been fortunate enough to get tickets to the Castres v Northampton game on Saturday evening. I’ve never been to a game in France before and cannot wait to experience what I’m told is an amazing atmosphere at Stade Pierre Antoine. Though it will need to go some to beat Ravenhill after Friday night I reckon.
A weekend of terrific rugby awaits. Hopefully the recommencement of the world’s greatest club competition will remind some people of the brilliance of what they seem so eager to throw on the scrapheap.
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.