As the domestic season takes a back seat Kristian Ross looks back over a rollercoaster 3 weeks for Ulster
Three weeks. Ulster Rugby have sent out a statement after three matches, the first in the Heineken Cup, the second and third in the RaboPRO12. What exactly have we learned? The last twenty one or so days have been highlighted in the media for so many reasons. Here is to explain why....
19TH OCTOBER vs MONTPELLIER HERAULT :
A win over Leicester Tigers the week previous had given Ulster the ultimate platform to build on their Heineken Cup campaign and take the initiative once again in Europe.
The English champions had fallen after some incredible hard work and effort, but it was going to be just as tough, if not tougher as the Ulstermen travelled to France. Having only having ever won one game on French soil against Castres Olympique last year, Ulster knew that this win would not only skyrocket their chances of finishing top of the group, but once again would pose a significant message to every other team on the continent that the team from Belfast are no pushover and that they can compete with the European heavyweights.
Needless to say, Ulster produced one of their best ever performances as a professional rugby side to come away with a very comfortable 25-8 win. Andrew Trimble’s try started the visitors off after some lovely neat interchange passing between Darren Cave and Tommy Bowe. Yoan Audrin scored for the home side and once again Ulster were reminded of the harsh tempo of Heineken Cup rugby, but in the second half everything changed.
Montpellier started to become undisciplined to a point of desperation and it was giving away countless penalties that cost them. Step up Ruan Pienaar. Four brilliant penalties later and a Paddy Jackson afterthought in injury time and Ulster had swept aside Montpellier with consummate ease. It was a cracking result, going away from home against a partisan crowd, the Ulster fans who had made the journey were not disappointed. Their team had put on a tactical master class and came away with a massive win.
25TH OCTOBER - vs CARDIFF BLUES
Following the huge win over Montpellier, Ulster returned to domestic action in the week following, and back to Ravenhill against Cardiff Blues. It was hard to see which Cardiff Blues team would turn up on the night, would it be the team that was torn apart by the Exeter Chiefs a few weeks earlier, or would it be the team that had managed to beat the European champions the week before. Ulster had already put 80+ points up against their Welsh rivals in the previous two fixtures, it boded well that this match should be a potential tryfest..... and it was.
Paddy Jackson and Leigh Halfpenny traded tries before Robbie Diack got try number one after Ulster pressure but Jackson failed to get the conversion. Ulster were maintaining a high tempo and not long after got over the line as Dan Tuohy extended the advantage and it was starting to look ominous for the Blues. However the game was far from over, and good rallying from Cardiff saw them grab a try back, ironically through an Irishman and someone who has been tipped for potential Irish caps in the future, number eight Robin Copeland crashed over the line as Leigh Halfpenny missed the chance for the extras but nailed a penalty soon after as Cardiff went into the half time break with momentum swinging their way and too close for comfort for Ulster’s liking.
As the second half got underway the battle started again with yet another try, but for the majority of the fans at Ravenhill it was a try that Ulster wanted to see, as good work from Stuart Olding lead to Luke Marshall grounding the ball to give the men in white some breathing space and once more showcase their talents as the future of Irish Rugby. Ulster added a penalty through Paddy Jackson soon after, but Cardiff were like a dog with a bone and wouldn't let go and Richard Smith went over the whitewash to give Ulster more to think about.
But from then on it all started going the home side’s way, a monster kick by Pienaar gave Ulster a 27-18 lead (despite a Leigh Halfpenny penalty in response) and Andrew Trimble continued his impressive form by adding the bonus point for a commanding 32-21 lead. Pienaar missed with the resulting conversion and were all but home and dry, but Dan Tuohy wanted to make sure, and Ravenhill erupted for the fifth time of the night when he grabbed his second time just before the clock went red. Ruan added a difficult two pointer and Ulster had hammered Cardiff Blues with an attacking lesson of the highest quality.
2ND NOVEMBER - vs SCARLETS
Despite making it six wins in a row in all competitions with the win over Cardiff, Ulster went to the Scarlets hoping to make it a seventh, but from the first whistle it was clear it wasn't going to be their night.
A strongest line up possible that was fielded, but the lack of Ulster’s key men due to international duty for Ireland as well as a lacklustre performance in key areas of the field saw Ulster fail to muster any sort of real threat throughout the entire eighty minutes. Ruan Pienaar did put the visitors ahead but Steve Shingler levelled for the Scarlets via the boot in what was an incredibly windy night in Llanelli. From then on the Scarlets were camped in Ulster’s half for the rest of the first period and despite some wonderfully sustained defence, the Welsh region finally got their reward via a George Earle try from a rolling maul and a Aled Thomas penalty at the end of the first half gave the Scarlets a 11-3 lead. Ulster started to look slightly better in the second half, but only for small periods at a time.
Pienaar missed a penalty attempt but then followed up with a successful kick a few minutes later, but Ulster’s luck continued to worsen as David McIlwaine was sent to the bin for not releasing and another Thomas penalty made it 14-6. Ulster were desperately running out of time, another Pienaar penalty got them back within five points and when Ruan was offered a chance to make it 14-12 in front of the posts (albeit in very windy conditions) he incredibly misjudged his kick as once again Ulster were masters of their own downfall. To add salt into the proverbial wound, Roger Wilson became the second player into the bin after a tripping offence, and a final infringement by John Afoa saw Aled Thomas kick the Scarlets to a 17-9 victory on a night they could do no wrong, and unfortunately for the Ulstermen they could do no right.
First of all Ulster fans shouldn't be too worried about the Scarlets defeat. Anscombe had commented that the players had looked tired and key men missing didn't help that.
Yes, Ulster will have periods of time, ie the Six Nations and the current end of year internationals in which they will have to survive without their big names, however with the next match not until the 22nd November against Edinburgh, Ulster have plenty of time to recover, regroup and rally.
The Cardiff win last week reminded us of Ulster last season, and how they got five point wins when it mattered, at home, against weaker opposition, the perfect way to start playoff push and show statements of intent in the RaboPRO12. Albeit, Mark Anscombe did say that Ulster couldn't afford too many more defeats, it has to be noted, at some point Ulster are going to have to win one or two big matches, ie against say Leinster or Munster in order to re-cooperate some of the points they failed to gain at the start of the season.
But the Montpellier win outlined Ulster’s hunger to go out and perform in Europe, a launch a serious bid for their Heineken Cup chances. With glory in Europe not tasted since 99, and Leinster and Munster having won it five times between them in that period, Ulster will want to finally prove that they can do it, and what with it possibly being the last Heineken Cup in the current format, it would be an amazing way to do it.
So with the huge test matches for Ireland in the coming weeks, it’s time to turn our attention and Stand Up For The Ulstermen in Green. Hopefully they will fair as well as Ulster did against Montpellier and Cardiff and all players will return to their provinces injury free and busting to go again.
I'm Kristian. 19. And my mind is filled with rugby shaped thoughts. Supporting Ulster Rugby, Newcastle Falcons and of course the mighty Ireland. Tommy Bowe is the MAN !!!! SUFTUM.