Phew, that wasn’t much fun. Egg’s much-vaunted high hopes never materialised and Ulster deservedly lost to Leinster, a team who, after 2 years of being head and shoulders above all comers (a short head in Clermont’s case), can be proclaimed as the best European side of the professional era.
What can Ulster take from Saturday? First of all, a few bruises and a few regrets. But mostly pride in their performance, pride in their fans and, when the dust has settled, acknowledgment that this could be the start of something.
Here’s a thought:
Its funny how good sides varnish dominant displays with late scores. And there was no doubting who was the dominant force here.
That’s from our muse, Le Gerry. And it’s from 2006, after Munster beat Leinster. In many ways, Ulster’s key games have mirrored Leinster’s that year – a breakthrough win in a notoriously tough venue, followed by a humbling at the hands of their neighbours. Leinster took the lessons learned that day, quietly built big-game fortitude and came back with the team of 2009, which now looks prosaic compares to the all-conquering 23 men of 2011-12. That’s Ulster’s task now – their position in the pecking order is well below Leinster, but above most others, and it gives them a clear level to aim towards. We said before that Thomond Park was Ulster’s Stoop moment – that no longer applies, so let’s at least hope it can be their Le Stadium Municipal moment.
[In an eerie parallel, Leinster had a duff bench that day as well - only a young Bob stands out].
There is no doubting Ulster will benefit from having played in a final – Egg had a brief thought yesterday that perhaps it would have been better if Toulouse had scraped past Embra and beat Ulster in the Palindrome – but it’s not true. If (when?) Ulster get back to the final, they’ll know what the day feels like, they’ll know how to manage the build-up, and they will be able to focus on the 2% extra to get over the line. The experience will stand to them.
As we hope it stands to Paddy Jackson – it was a harrowing day for the youngster, who looked nowhere near ready for this level. Hindsight is 20-20 of course, and the Ulster coaching staff know Jackson better than anyone, but when they selected him for Embra, they knew they would have to pick him for the final. Jackson looked overawed and nervy – understandable of course, but it is the coaches job to prepare him both physically and mentally, and their effort came up a long way short. We think Jackson will recover, he’s a talented guy, but it does seem to be a rather cavalier way to treat a talent of his nature. Conversely, iHumph looked spritely and expansive when he came in, his arrival corresponding to Ulster’s most threatening phase of the game.
Many other Ulster players who can be very happy with their individual days work – John Afoa was excellent, Rory Best nuggety and driven. Dan Tuohy didn’t look out of place at this level, and of course popped up on the wing to score his try from a sumptuous pass from Paddy Wallace, who skill level illuminated mostly pedestrian attacking moves. Cave and Gilroy also had good days; and the backline will have Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne next season.
Fez had a solid day – while not as explosive as he can be, he too looked comfortable on this stage, albeit not quite 100%. Speaking of not quite 100%, Chris Henry was not fully recovered from his injury – he was a marginal presence, and came off for Willie Faloon on 65 minutes. As the Mole said, if you see Faloon coming in, it wasn’t going to plan for Ulster.
The bottom line for Ulster is that they were beaten by a much better side on the day. But it was one of the great, if not the greatest, sides that did it. In terms of getting to the final, Leinster’s win in Bordeaux was the toughest task, but Ulster beat Clermont as well, and also beat Leicester and Munster, both better sides than anyone else Leinster beat. They were in the final on merit, and came across a whirlwind, a maelstrom of physicality, high skills and intelligent players who just weren’t going to lose.
Ulster can reflect on a breakout season, one where many of the core players had their best seasons to date (Cave, Wallace, Best, Tuohy, Ferris, Henry) and some outstanding youngsters moved into and to the fringes of the first team (Gilroy, Marshall, Fitzpatrick, Jackson, Henderson) – Ulster have proved themselves against some of the greatest sides on the continent, and fallen short of the best.
No shame there – SUFTUM.