Part of me was hoping I could avoid this article altogether making it less “writeup” and more “writeoff” but there’s a good bit to harp on so I’d best get down to it.
Three incidents in particular summed up the match for me, with the first coming in the 18th minute. Ulster had just been rewarded for their early pressure when a strong run from Player of the Match James Hume finally found a weak spot in Leinster’s tackling cordon to get to the line before Greg Jones got over.
But that’s not the moment I want to focus on, this came just after. Many’s a time in the past teams have had a strong start at the RDS and gotten the opening score only for Leinster to come storming back, and many’s a time that team was Ulster, so I’m pretty sure not one of their fans was taking anything for granted just yet.
As Ross Byrne put the restart short and straight up the middle, you could tell our plan was to being the storming right away, and Robbie Henshaw underlined this intention by being the first to fly into the Saturday evening D4 sky to get his hand to it and bat the ball back. Only where does it go? Straight into the welcome arms of one Stuart McCloskey.
Incident number two came well into the second half, the 66th minute to be precise. For all their pressure the Ulstermen had only been able to add three points to that Jones try and when Leinster finally managed something of a purple patch when they increased the attacking tempo to find some soft shoulders, we managed to wipe out that lead altogether.
But just after Ross Byrne slotted the penalty that drew us level, he was replaced by his brother Harry and shortly after the restart, the sub’s first big requirement was to clear his lines. Whether he knew he was outside the 22 or not is kind of irrelevant as the pass was coming from outside it anyway, plus looking at the gap between the two Ulstermen in their it seemed to make sense to find it rather than aim for touch, so let’s assume it was a miskick into touch that went out on the full and brought play all the way back.
From that lineout, Max Deegan was pinged for lifting an opponent’s leg in the maul which meant a halfback from Ulster’s bench had a big kick to start his own cameo, with Nathan Doak having no problem slotting the ball over the posts to restore their lead and thus also their belief that a rare W in Dublin was there for the taking.
The third and final moment was in minute number 79. Leinster were still pressing and pressing but like I said, the Ulster defence had found a second wind and were back to heaping incredible pressure on everything we were trying to do with the ball.
We were really at last chance saloon when Jimmy O’Brien caught a clearance at halfway and set us up for an attack. For the most part we had been fighting back by moving the ball quickly up the middle but on this occasion we found ourselves in a situation where we tried to beat Ulster’s quick line speed with even quicker passing.
As it got to Tommy O'Brien he had clearly made the decision already to let it go out of the tackle regardless, and when he did, it was clearly heading for Deegan who was next in line. But while he seemed to expect the ball to come to him, James Hume was lying in wait to pounce, totally earning the right to recover a little bobble and run it in to not only nail down the historic win but also deny us a losing bonus we might have actually been thankful for all things considered.
Now I really hope it doesn’t look like I’m singling people out in those above examples, it was just in each case they highlighted IMO themes which had been there for the whole match. In the first one, Leinster actually did something right only for a white jersey to still be in the way to prevent us from actually making anything from it.
On the second example, it was a case of us doing something ourselves that was well short of our own standards, although you could make a case that our decision making was affected by the immense pressure applied by their defending. Last, and certainly not least, you had one of many times when a white jersey simply looked like wanting the ball more than a blue one.
In many ways this Ulster performance reminded me of their famous win at Thomond Park back in 2012. There was nothing flashy about it, they just came with a mind to 1) throw us off our own attacking game and 2) take their chances when they got them. In actual fact they weren’t great at the second part, and I’m pretty sure their fans will admit they left a good few points behind, but boy were they excellent at the defensive organisation.
I mean - we weren’t too shabby in that department either which helped keep their score down up to the closing moments, but they absolutely put us to the sword when we had the ball, with Nick Timoney in the form of his life and right up there with Hume in contention for the match gong, yet not the only Ulster hero on the night by a long stretch.
Before I continue about how well they played, I suppose I have to address the "elephant in the room", arguably the nicest thing Frank Murphy has been called by Leinster fans over the past couple of days.
I have said this about ref-blaming for many years but should probably say it again - believing an official is biased going by calls they make against your team is using the same logic as believing a lemon only ever squirts you in the eye. Just because YOU notice something happening, that doesn’t mean it’s the only time it happens.
No doubt if the roles were reversed and the ref was making the same calls against Ulster at the Kingspan, you’d hear their fans complaining too. And I’m sure I could always “do a Rassie” and cut and paste some clips that “prove” some calls could have gone the other way, but how that helps us going forward into the season I just do not know.
The fact remains that after a team came to our house and threw down a gauntlet, we struggled to pick it up, and with Connacht the next ones lying in wait for us after a six-day turnaround (they seem to like playing in Dublin this calendar year), that has to be what we’re working on.
I mean it wasn’t that we were absolutely awful as I have heard many suggest. There were some good individual performances on the night like Robbie Henshaw (try and all round defence), Jimmy O’Brien (great under the high ball), Ross Molony (lineout steals and general breakdown work) and in particular a great cameo from Will Connors who seemed determined to pick up where he left off.
Plus there were times when we even seemed to be functioning well as a team - for one thing, like I said earlier, our overall defending was reasonably sound; if anything we seemed to be shipping more penalties when we had the ball. Also on what always seemed to be a key area against Dan McFarland’s men, namely facing their maul after lineouts in our own 22, we certainly started extremely well, managing to shut down those situations both quickly and legally.
Then there was that purple patch I mentioned, when we actually were managing to gain ground with every carry and during this spell, we even got a bounce of the ball that went our way when a rare loose pass from McGrath went to ground yet still got recovered and brilliantly finished by Henshaw.
But I’m probably stretching it by doing as many as three paragraphs looking for positives, because the one thing we seemed to want from this lineup, namely a strong mix of creativity between our choices at 10, 12 and 15, just didn’t seem to be able to adapt after the early bombardment to find a way through, and now we have an example to add to the performance in Newport earlier in the season to suggest that may not have been a mere blip.
I thought here we fell back into a pattern that used to plague us throughout the “onesies” whereby we had so much faith in our original gameplan that despite the wall of white jerseys that kept getting in our way, we were determined to make it work by trying to improve our accuracy.
Yet with so many proven footballers with the boot out there, I didn’t see why we weren’t trying more variation in that first half, trying to create crossfield kick situations for Larmour and Adam Byrne, or even just simply stabbing grubbers through to pin them back in their 22 and let our own defending keep them there.
Instead we kept letting them get the upper hand and while they would have been disappointed with only 7 on the board at half time, we were absolutely deserving of the duck egg against our own name.
Also we were back to the lineout woes - officially the stats said we were 14/15 but I think that is based on who ends up with possession and often times it was very sloppy. I reckon coaches would be far more interested in a percentage of "clean lineouts" where at least one planned phase following the dart is executed, and thanks in part to pressure from the O'Connors, Carters et al, I'm not sure we got a passing grade.
Maybe the fact that this was far from our full starting lineup means things will be different for “bigger” matches down the line, yet that said we all know how attritional the rugby season can be so we really need these players to be able to step up and besides, interpros are of course matches that are plenty big in and of themselves.
Normally I aim for 2000 words with these writeups but the November internationals went so well that I broke through that barrier more than once so I can probably afford to fall short this time around. I guess we need to wait and see how they respond this Friday and in some ways I’m hoping Leo doesn’t make too many changes because I reckon they’ll all be itching to get back out there. I especially hope Dan Leavy’s early exit wasn’t too serious and I won’t be the only fan that has fingers, toes and eyes crossed that he’s back ASAP.
As chance would have it I have fans of both Ulster & Connacht on the next podcast during the week to discuss both last weekend and next, so be sure to check that out when it publishes on Wednesday as we also plan to pay tribute to the career of Rob Kearney with the help of offerings from other contributors plus some followers of the site.
In the meantime congrats again to all Ulster fans, there’s a saying going around the twitter machine which goes “URC = Best League” and after a match like that and looking at the league table I reckon we can also make a case for “Irish Shield = Best Shield”? JLP