Saturday, March 30, 2019

"This is a winnable game for Ulster." by Ciaran Duffy

Ulster have every chance in their Quarter Final against Leinster.  But they have to avoid beating themselves by going in with a defeatist attitude.  So often this season teams have come to Leinster and given it a go for a period of the game, but then given up.  Leinster are, and have always been when at their best, the kind of team that can suddenly put a 20 point gap between them and the opposition, because the tea, they are playing tires or slacks off, and Leinster go up a gear.  

This season Dragons got blown away, Edinburgh got out muscled, Wasps got brushed aside, as did Ospreys, Bath were outpaced, Ulster themselves couldn’t keep up with Leinster (albeit a much-changed side), and Southern Kings were well beaten despite making a match out of the first 20 minutes.  Southern Kings and Dragons aside, those aren’t teams you can bank on beating easily.  Leinster remain unbeaten this year at home in all competitions, that’s one of the reasons they are European Champions.  

It hasn’t all been easy.  As I said, Southern Kings made a real game of that first 20 minutes, Toulouse were stubborn and hard to break down before Leinster broke away, and Munster, despite going behind early, came back strong, and probably would’ve deserved an LBP.  

The closest any team has come to beating Leinster at home this season is Connacht.  On a cold December night, the last home game of the season, a much changed Leinster side (the Champions Cup game against Bath having been the week prior) went out to battle, and were very nearly beaten.  The last game in the RDS of 2018 was going to end in a victory for Connacht based on 70 minutes of rugby, but the game would go into it’s 82nd minute with a late late try by Leinster.  

While I said there in the Anglesea Stand, my usual seat, between blue and green, I was reminded of two Ireland – New Zealand games.  For most of the game it looked like 2016, the team in green were outplaying the favourites, who were missing some key players, and looked set for something famous.  Yet ultimately, it was Connachts 2013, so close, but outclassed by class.  Connacht should have won that game based on 7/8s of the match.  Ulster can learn two lessons from that.  

Number one, go at Leinster.  Bundee Aki was relentless in Connachts near famous win.  Every player stepped up for the Westeners.  That’s what Ulster need, an all-around performance.  They need to be disruptive.  Toulouse disrupted Leinsters rhythm by making the pitch small and not providing any space.  Had Munster not conceded two early tries they would have found themselves in an advantageous position, and really did trouble Leinster in the Aviva in October.  In football, often times a smaller team can sit back and defend, and take a chance that comes along (Ireland 1 – 0 Germany, Euro 2016 Qualifier at the Aviva in 2015).  It’s the opposite in rugby, the weaker team have to be disruptive to the big guns, and need to not only not let them play their game, but forcibly play their own.

The other thing Ulster need to do is stay switched on.  They can’t get caught out by a quick lineout, or leave big gaps.  This is Leinster playing European rugby at the Aviva, they will take advantage.  They will need to give everything they have for 80 minutes plus how ever many minutes over the clock ticks.  

This is a winnable game for Ulster.  I wouldn’t call it 50/50, it never is away to Leinster, but I’d say it’s not much beyond 60/40.  Sexton and Lowe are out, two key omissions.  Ross Byrne passed the test against Munster in October, he’ll need another big showing.  He needs to be careful with his kicking game, Ulster have a tall back three capable of winning the ball and countering.  James Lowe is like Leinsters Jacob Stockdale, in that he seems to be able to score at any time.  The fact that Leinster are without Lowe, and Ulster have Stockdale gives them an edge on one wing going forward.  

Winning is a habit, one Leinster have formed at home.  Just like Ulster need to do, Leinster need to force their game on Ulster.  It’s late in the day, the main event of a Saturday of big European games.  The players will be waiting around all day, and have seen how the other games play out.  Edinburgh – Munster is the wild card, and unpredictable early kick-off, and Saracens – Glasgow will either see a favourite progress or a shock that could inspire more.  This will likely come down to who gets to play their way.  

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Ciarán Duffy (@Voicenstein) is a Leinster supporter and self-proclaimed ‘big cheese’ of Post To Post (@PostToPostSport).   He’ll write about anything rugby under the condition he gets to take it too seriously.
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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019