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News

Getting There

by UAFC Editor on Wed Jun 20, 2012 10:42 pm
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Barry Ireland reviews the Ulster season

In a year defined by a remarkable Heineken Cup run, suggesting that Ulster have at last arrived at the top table of European club rugby, fans are left spirited and rightly optimistic for the seasons ahead. With this unexpected and inspiring run of performances, however, there remains a not insubstantial body of evidence suggesting that the polished edges and sheen of a finished article are not yet here.

Ulster now face up to what may be the most important season in their history knowing that the bar has been irreversibly raised. The last time they stood at the head of the European table, Ulster retreated into a shell of mediocrity, and such is the unforgiving nature of professional rugby, they remained there for over a decade, forced to watch as neighbouring provinces took the plaudits for defining standards of excellence, that given their respective starting positions, Ulster, if managed differently, ought to have been receiving.

Taking a breath and trying as far as possible to review the season dispassionately, it’s surprisingly difficult to sum up. Coming out of a Heineken Cup pool containing Leicester and Clermont takes some doing by any standard. To follow that by storming the Thomond Park fortress, a legendary stronghold of Europe, and a place where even the All Backs fear to tread, is quite extraordinary. Riding on the crest of a wave of emotion all the way to the first all-Ireland climax at Twickenham in front of a record crowd, what a magnificent run it was, albeit the final proving a leap too far. For now.

Success is of course no teacher, and often comes veneered in a gloss that covers over cracks needing tending. The scale of the final defeat was an ignominious record, and although this is almost universally acknowledged to be an ill reflection on a largely competitive match, it highlights a lacking in the team’s current make-up at the highest level. The chief difference in each of the teams’ mentality leading into Twickenham was perhaps rooted in their respective experiences of the semi final stage. Whilst Ulster stuttered and stumbled at home to average opponents, the Leinster win, in France, over a magnificent Clermont side, was one of the great European performances. One in a long line of many character-building away performances on foreign soil still not present in the Ulster evolution.

There is no shame in losing to this Leinster side, perhaps the greatest team European club rugby has ever seen. That an Irish province yet again carries the flag forward at the forefront of the game is great for rugby in Ireland as a whole. That being said, a province with a heritage like Ulster ought not to lie down to anyone. Having seen all they are capable of first hand, Ulster must learn from Leinster, and replicate the iron resolve they show when travelling abroad, consistently defeating great sides on foreign soil. With each away victory in stow, a team grows in character and builds into their mentality a refusal to lose that defines them. If Ulster Rugby is to follow up this season’s successes, to eventually scale heights similar to its neighbours, the team simply must find a way, or make a way, to win on foreign soil. To speak of Ulster amongst Europe’s true elite is premature, until this is achieved.

This is a task not accomplished easily. The return of Tommy Bowe, honed into a truly world class three-quarter, should hasten the goal, as should a further year’s development of a young and promising squad. But the question marks over the outside half position hang like Damocles' sword over this potential.

The simple truth is that no rugby team has ever won anything of note without a quality ten. As key decision maker on the pitch, the ten will drive the pack forwards with the boot, and run the backline with ball in hand. Whilst it’s true that the pack must at least gain some parity with their opposition and provide decent ball to allow the half-backs to operate, when that parity is established, the ten must control the game. This is something that has not been present consistently in an Ulster team since David Humphries' playing days, and if Paddy Jackson is to go on to great things, it will likely be in spite of his premature baptism at Twickenham than because of it. A shift is needed, moving Ruan Pienaar, a proven and excellent fly half at the highest level, to ten, allowing Jackson room to learn and blossom as his deputy, much like what was done with Felipe Contepomi and Jonathan Sexton at Leinster, the latter being forced to raise his standards to a world class level to fully stake his starting spot. This he famously achieved in his starkly contrasting first Heineken Cup final experience in 2009, going on to become the world class outside half he now is. If Jackson is to follow a similar track, it will not be achieved by throwing him head-first into the deep-end of European rugby, and hoping to God he finds a way to swim, rather it will be from allowing him time to develop and learn from an already world class operator, like Pienaar.

With some small but significant tweaks in key areas, the evidence is there suggesting Ulster have very much arrived, and this time are here to stay. In addition to the excellent standards set by the southern hemisphere imports, seasoned home-bred performers such as Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble have reached the height of their powers, as have the returning Roger Wilson and Tommy Bowe. When you add Afoa, Muller and Pienaar into the mix, there is a concrete foundation of experience and class to aid the development of the exciting prospects such as Jackson, Gilroy, Marshall, Fitzpatrick, Cave and Spence, all of whom have a realistic opportunity, even at this stage of their careers,to make the step up to international level, and cement Ulster’s standing for years to come.

Next season will undoubtedly answer a lot of questions as to how far the squad have come, and how far they can still go. A new Head Coach adds to the exciting uncertainty of what may be possible. The rugby world has not yet fully witnessed how truly remarkable Ulster fans are, the opportunities for this exposure have been scant. Men and women who have followed their team into hell in times past, standing up in the face of howling winds and driving rain, in a full stadium watching what was a mismanaged, once-great province scratch around the base of the then Magners League, suffering through bad times. Ulster Rugby, through better leadership and vision, has climbed out of hell, the team coming out the other side with an army of uncommonly loyal support. Let us hope that the opportunity earned, to stand up with the sun on their faces in south west London, in front of the rugby world, marks the beginning of a journey...

 


 

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UAFC Editor has been a member since Thu May 03, 2012 8:02 am. He/She has posted a total of 18 News item(s) for a total of 27 post(s).

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Comments

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darkside lightside
Thu Jun 21, 2012 4:41 pm

This is a decent summing-up - I certainly agree that it's actually pretty tough to know exactly where Ulster stand after last season! Last season we mixed the sublime with the ridiculous, hopefully next season we'll have more of the former and less of the latter!


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Sparkys_Evil_Twin_Brother
Thu Jun 21, 2012 11:37 pm

Very well written review, let's hope we do more to build on our success this year than we did in '99, and agreed on the out half position being key. Frustrating that we wasted so much of this season with Humphries the Lesser in that shirt. Also agree on the young and exciting prospects of international representation you have listed. Have to therefore reflect with frustration on this morning's news that Paddy Wallace has been flown straight onto Ireland's starting team ahead of Cave...what more could Cave do to get this much needed experience at international level against the best in the world? A backward step by Kidney, and an opportunity lost for Ulster in having Cave return from NZ without more of the first class experience he deserves.


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ColinM
Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:50 pm

Sparky, in a way one could say PAddy is starting ahead of Earls, and Earls is taking Trimble's place. and in that sense Kidney is to be praised. Earls started with 12 on his back in the first test and that went wrong. Be it because Earls is a better winger than a centre or be it because BOD isnt comfortable playing in the 12 role.

Last week Declan reverted to a 12 at 12 and a 13 at 13 which went much better and with the great man still lacing up his boots Cave will have to wait for injuries to BOD and probably Earls to get a decent chance in green.

The real error here is Paddy not being picked in the first place. Deccy went with 3 outside centres and an unfit D'Arcy. Credit to him for not making do again in the final test and admitting the error of his original selection. Either that or credit BOD for refusing to play 12 again. Whichever is true and correct is the same reason Cave wont get his chance.


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