Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where Ulster should be


Victory at Cardiff Arms Park on Friday night saw Ulster extend their unbeaten start to the season and move just two points off the top of the table. Tries from Dan Tuohy and Ian Humphreys, alongside a good place kicking display by Paddy Jackson, were enough to see off a spirited, if somewhat limited, Cardiff Blues side. 

In an encounter that never fully came to life, both sides coughed and spluttered their way to half time as Rhys Patchell and Paddy Jackson were left to progress things from the tee to leave it 12-9 to Ulster at the interval.

Finally, it was Ulster that broke this cycle 10 minutes into the second period when Dan Tuohy moved on to an inside pass from Paul Marshal and handed off two defenders to dot down under the posts. The try, converted by Paddy Jackson, was Tuohy's third try of the season and sounded the death knell for the Blues' victory hopes. 

Whilst the game wasn't truly sown up until Ian Humphreys, a second half replacement for Paddy Jackson, intercepted a looping pass inside Cardiff’s 22 to run in unopposed under the posts, Cardiff never looked likely to breach the Ulster line. Whilst full of vim and vigour, the Blues attacks often lacked direction and simply didn’t have the requisite incision to pierce a strong Ulster defensive unit. 

This was undoubtedly the most pleasing aspect of the Ulster performance as defensive shape has been an issue in both previous games. Against the fast and loose Scarlets, Ulster often looked quite a bit off the pace and were duly punished for some poor first up tackling and their lack of line speed. 

More concerning, though, was the labourious nature of the entire performance against a very poor Zebre side. Whilst coming away with the bonus point victory was effectively job done on the night, the fairly muted response around the ground afterwards told a tale of supporters still unsure of the future following a summer of changes and upheaval at the newly renamed Kingspan Stadium. 

Friday's result in Cardiff will have gone a long way to revitalising those who felt their energies waning. Undoubtedly there is still plenty of room for improvement. The players have a lot more to give in an attacking sense and Friday was the first time this season that Ulster seemed to have any semblance of a gameplan around the ruck. 

But now is not the time to peak. The visit to Welford Road isn’t for four weeks yet and Ulster fans should be well versed in the perils of peaking at the wrong time of the season. For now the trajectory appears to be a good one, picking up important points whilst developing week on week. Fans can see progress and that the future is not as bleak as was being portrayed by some in the summer.

The biggest issue currently is the lack of second row cover with Dan Tuohy's broken arm remarkably ill-timed following as it did the announcement Iain Henderson is likely to be out until December with a hip injury As unfortunate and undesirable as the situation is, Lewis Stevenson is an able deputy and the form of Franco Van Der Merwe will have pleased all so far. 

Indeed, Van Der Merwe, tighthead prop Wiehahn Herbst and utility back Louis Ludik have all shown their quality already. Van Der Merwe has run the lineout efficiently when asked so far and brings more physicality than the man he was brought in to replace, Johann Muller. Herbst too has shown that the John Afoa sized hole in the front row is one he can ably fill following his power-packed display against the Blues.

But it is Ludik that has perhaps impressed most. Intelligent, strong and not lacking in pace, Ludik looks to be comfortable playing anywhere from 11-15 and possesses a very well rounded skill set. His reliability and experience could prove to be a godsend when the international contingent are away. 

Everybody knew this could be a tough season for Ulster. A difficult European Champions Cup pool and major off season unrest could have sent the province into free fall. So it's to the credit of Les Kiss and heir apparent Neil Doak that Ulster haven't suffered any major hangover. Whilst there are undoubtedly things to work on, is that not a good thing after just three weeks of the season?

Ulster is roughly where they should be: not perfect, but not bad either.

Ryan is an Ulster Rugby season ticket holder with an interest in a wide variety of sports
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