Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ulster back on track

Ulster fans have every reason to be excited about Europe, says Ryan Cullen...


Pivotal. That's how Saturday's defeat of Glasgow feels to many Ulster fans in this week's afterglow. Both the fact, and the manner, of the defeat of the Warriors was the very best way for the new (perhaps newly-permanent is better) coaching ticket to get the ball rolling. 

As the numbers inside the Kingspan Stadium grew, so did the anticipation levels. Everybody knew they were about to get a big clue as to what they could expect this season. The atmosphere crackled as the two sides took to the pitch. 

It's impressive in itself that the visit of Glasgow creates such an atmosphere these days. Pre-Townsend a victory over Glasgow was assumed and the atmosphere reflected that. It is to the great credit of Townsend and his players that this is definitively not the case any longer. 

In open play, the contest itself was as tight as expected for the first 40 minutes; Ulster's defence on top but Glasgow's performing admirably too. Line breaks by Warriors captain Josh Strauss and Ulster's Stuart McCloskey and Andrew Trimble briefly looked like bringing the game's first try but excellent scramble defence by both sides snuffed these out. 

In the tight, though, Ulster started to exert a level of dominance. Powerpacked scrummaging and expert rolling mauls led to a series of penalties (alongside Leone Nakarawa's comedy offside) which allowed Ulster to establish a healthy 15-6 lead at the interval.

It is worth commenting on the incident between Louis Ludik and Sean Lamont. It looked awful in real-time as Ludik cartwheeled in mid-air and appeared to land quite heavily on his neck. I was incensed in the ground. 'Has to go' I shouted. How many times has it happened to us I thought. 'Owens wont bottle it' those around me advised.

And he didn't. As horrible as the incident looked, it didn't merit the red card I was shouting for. Nor was it a penalty. The on-rushing Paul Marshall was probably as much to blame as Lamont. Thankfully all were fine to continue and we move on.

That the pattern of the second half was initially very similar to that of the first was no surprise. Neither team are renowned for 40 minute performances. When Glasgow's third penalty brought them to within a score it became ever clearer the scorer’s of the first try were likely to take a strong hold of the game. 

All that seemed irrelevant though when the crowd realised the apparent seriousness of the injury to Mark Bennett. The Warriors centre was treated for what seemed like an age on the pitch and there was no doubt that many feared the worst. Thankfully Bennett appears to have emerged unscathed. Why Alan O'Connor has been cited for the incident isn't instantly obvious. Ulster will have everything crossed he isn't charged.

As the game resumed for the last quarter nobody expected what was about to happen. Craig Gilroy has gone off the boil somewhat since his stellar introduction to the international game but here he demonstrated that all of the potential he had still remains.

The angle which saw Gilroy glide inside and out of three Glasgow defenders before turning on the afterburners to go around Niko Matawalu and score in the corner was perfection in motion. He had delivered the decisive blow. Humphrey's conversion took Ulster's lead to 13 and the game was effectively sealed.

That was rubberstamped just a few minutes later when Tommy Bowe seized on a loose pass by a weary looking Ewan Murray to intercept and go the 55 metres to score under Glasgow's posts. Bowe has looked somewhat jaded so far this season and will hope this try is the catalyst for his general performance to go up a notch or two with an important run of games ahead.

The final scoreline probably flattered Ulster a little but there was no doubt this was a richly deserved victory and one that sends them into European battle in rude health. Injuries aside, it was hard to imagine Ulster could be in such a strong position at this stage of the season even just a few weeks ago. 

The job that Les Kiss, Neil Doak and all of the coaches have done has rightly been lauded this week. There was far too much doom-mongering around in the summer but there can be no doubt Ulster stood at a crossroads. 

They enter Europe again with expectation rather than mere hope. Some may see this weekend's visit to Welford Road as the warm up act before the reigning champions visit Belfast but that would be foolish in the extreme. I have never known the Tigers', one of the great old clubs of English rugby, to roll the red carpet out for anyone and I certainly don't expect it on Saturday night. 

Of course excitement is already building ahead of the visit of Toulon's galacticos and we certainly hope to give them as 'warm' a welcome as you can imagine. But each game carries the same number of points and victory on Saturday is just as important. 

I'm sure the men in charge are fully aware of that mind you.

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

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