Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Decisions, decisions

Mark Anscombe has some serious calls to make this week, writes Ryan Cullen

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Rarely has a patchy home victory been more important. Ulster’s victory over Munster on Friday night was as important as any league win this season and gives the province some momentum leading into the most important fortnight of the season to date.

Undoubtedly there are some concerns over Ulster’s defensive frailties, particularly against the rolling maul. Montpellier and Leicester, renowned for their forward oriented play, cannot have failed to notice how easily Munster moved the Ulster forwards around and ultimately pulled themselves back into the game. Much work must be done on the training paddock this week.

That being said, it would be wrong to forget the sheer number of try scoring opportunities Ulster carved out against Munster. Although only coming away with two scores, a try scoring bonus point was not far from their grasp. Whilst this can be a recurring theme from Ulster’s league performances, they have shown both this and in previous seasons that the Heineken Cup focuses their minds like no other competition and one would hope being clinical in the opposition 22 will not be an issue against Montpellier this weekend and Leicester the next.

Team selection is certainly an area Mark Anscombe will need to think hard about over the next few days. Whilst having several international players coming back into the squad is a major boon for the Kiwi, their lack of match sharpness is also something he will need to consider. Whilst Chris Henry and Iain Henderson played well for their first game back on Friday night, they weren’t quite at the level we had seen prior to their injuries.

The rumoured return of Rory Best is also an interesting dilemma for Anscombe who needs to ensure Best gets enough game time to prime him for the trip to Welford Road the following week, yet without asking too much of him in his first week back in full contact. Rob Herring has generally been doing a fine job in place of Best too and would be unlucky to lose his place for the game against Montpellier at least.

With the likely fitness of Johann Muller and the return of Tommy Bowe not scheduled until further down the line, the team generally picks itself. The hooking decision aside, the backrow is probably the only area where there remains any uncertainty. 3 games in 3 weeks coming back from injury may be too much to ask of Iain Henderson and Chris Henry so Sean Doyle may come in for some unexpected game time.

Robbie Diack is probably the most improved Ulster performer so far this season so his inclusion in both games would certainly not be a surprise, although one would have to think the decision at 6 may be influenced by the potential return of Nick Williams. Following a cameo appearance off the bench on Friday night, most Ulster fans will be expecting the reigning Pro12 Player of the Season to slot back into the first choice number 8 role.

That would be somewhat harsh on Roger Wilson who has been a consistent performer throughout this season. As any regular readers of this piece will know I believe Wilson to be an underrated commodity to this Ulster side, but I would still be very surprised not to see Williams return to the first XV. As a result it’s likely the greater mobility of Robbie Diack may be seen as more useful than the strong ball carrying of Henderson for this Friday’s game. Swap this if Wilson gets the nod.

That leaves Henry or Doyle at 7. I’m sure all will agree that Henry is the first choice openside, but with the previously mentioned burnout concerns in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if Henry was held back to the following week. Sean Doyle has shown himself to be an able deputy and certainly could do a decent enough job against Montpellier.

Whilst it would be foolish to look too far ahead, victory over Montpellier should be achieved comfortably enough on Friday night. As all Rugby fans know, French teams aren’t renowned for their love of travelling and a cold Friday night at Ravenhill doesn’t strike me as a welcome trip in early January. Rather, it is the following weekend’s game that will undoubtedly require the biggest effort and the one all Ulster fans are looking forward too.

Whilst we are still in the group stages of the Heineken Cup, effectively the knockout stages begin on Friday!

A word on Munster and Ian Keatley. Friday night was the first time I have seen Munster this season and two things stood out. Firstly, they seemed to lack to ball carrying intensity required to play the wide game they have been in transition to since Rob Penney took over. The phrase ‘earning the right to go wide’ is often overused in my eyes but I do think it applies to Munster currently. They played a lot of their game in front of the Ulster defensive line and struggled to make the line breaks required to generate space out wide.

Secondly, there certainly wasn’t too much wrong with the pressure they applied when keeping the ball tighter in the second half. Ulster can reasonably consider themselves one of the better packs in Europe and yet they couldn’t contain the Munster driving maul. I appreciate skills levels aren’t improved and excitement isn’t generated by playing tight, forward based rugby, but for Munster it might just bring the best results.

Finally a word in defence of Ian Keatley. Friday night was undoubtedly not the young fly half’s finest hour but plenty of more experienced players have struggled on cold windy nights at Ravenhill. Conditions for place kicking were particularly difficult in the first half for Keatley, when he struggled most, and he regained his composure to land several good kicks in the second half. Perfection cannot be attained in 6 months and perhaps a little more perspective is required from some, and I emphasise some, Munster fans.

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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