Ulster Have Their Stoop Moment

Well, that lived up to expectations;  1.45 kick-off times tend not to produce classics, but this was assuredly one of the great Heineken Cup knockout matches.  It was a mad old game in many ways.  Ulster raced into a remarkable 19-0 lead, and 16 of those points were scored from inside their own half, and the other three came from an opportunistic, and sweetly struck, drop goal.  Did Ulster win a single ruck ball in Munster’s 22? 

Johann Muller salutes the fans

You never doubted the Munster response would be ferocious.  They even looked like favourites at around the 45 minute mark – the deficit was down to six points and Ulster were well and truly on the ropes.  It wasn’t until the 65th minute that Ulster got a foothold back in the match, and as Munster began to err in the final quarter, Ulster were able to get the job done.  Just.

This was Ulster’s Stoop moment.  It was frequently reminiscent of that frantic game.  They seemingly did everything to invite Munster back into the match: missing touch from penalties, losing a key lineout, being dominated in the aerial challenges, slicing clearances – but kept making tackle after tackle.  Often in rugby, it’s about having the composure to see out a winning position, but sometimes it’s just about having the guts.  That was the case for Leinster in the Stoop in 2009 and it was the same for Ulster here.  With 78 minutes on the clock they only had to win their own scrum, pick and drive and kick the ball dead – instead they managed to turn the ball over and give Munster one last shot at glory.  Too often Ulster have capitulated away from home, but they hung on here by sheer will to win.  Make the tackle, get up, make another one.  Incredible.

In The Stoop, Cheika didn’t make a single substitution, and McLaughlin repeated that tactic here.  It does reflect the lack of depth available to Ulster, and also shows just how lucky they have been with injuries.  They have a superb starting 15, but outside of that set, only Paul Marshall and Paddy McAllister are really challenging for a starting berth.  Lewis Stevenson is having a good season and Nevin Spence is talented, but his progress has been disrupted by injuries.  McLaughlin did the right thing – no troop would leave the field of battle.

Egg Chaser was delirious afterwards, but also sanguine enough to suggest that Ulster had won without playing much rugby, and that maybe it wasn’t actually a great performance.  I felt the need to put him right – any win in Thomond Park is a great win, especially one in the knockouts of the Heineken Cup.  It doesn’t matter what team Munster have out, or how you manage to get over the line, it’s a huge win – and it was a great performance, in its own way.  Plenty of good teams have been beaten out of sight in Thomond, and just having the belief that you can win is massive in and of itself.

The reward for Ulster is huge.  They’ve got this far the hard way, but the semi-final – with all due respect to their opponent – is the stuff you dream about – Edinburgh in Dublin.  It would be a seismic shock if Ulster didn’t get the win and make the final.  The final!  Another intriguing element is the Brian McLaughlin factor.  At the time of the announcement that he’d be stepping down, we saw some method to Humphreys’ approach, but the appointment of Mark Anscombe was underwhelming, and if McLaughlin can get this sort of performance out of his team, what more can be asked of him?  What if Ulster win the Heineken Cup?  It’s a curious state of affairs, but we would like to hear Rory Best and Johann Muller’s take on it.

What the win emphatically does is bring Ulster to the top table.  As few as three seasons ago they were languishing at the wrong end of the Pro12 (then Magners League).  The turnaround has been swift and impressive.  Much has been made of their cabal of Suthefrikans, but if Ulster have been guilty of anything, it’s of superb recruiting.  John Afoa, Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenbosh, Ruan Pienaar and Stefan Terblanche have all performed brilliantly.   Cheap they may not be (although we have been here before – only Pienaar and Afoa are top dollar, and Afoa is cheaper than Botha), but value is what they are.  The contrast with how Munster have recruited (Tuitoupou, Chambers, Tokula, Borlase) is stark. Factor in the age profile of the natives, and it’s clear why they’ve switched places.  For the rest of the season, it’s about keeping everyone fit (touch wood!), and timing the emotional peeks accordingly.

As for Munster, well, going out at this stage shouldn’t be seen as the end of the world.  It’s a far cry from last season’s debacle in Toulon, when an ageing, stagnant team with no scrum and terrible scrum halves got beaten out of the park.  Sure, losing twice in a row in Fortress Thomond (both to fierce rivals) will feel pretty raw for a while. The players will have felt a huge opportunity has been missed, and the sense that Munster have now slipped to third best Irish province won’t sit well with anyone. 

Try not to look too dejected, and remember the good rebuilding work that's been done this season.

But in actuality, Munster have in fact achieved a huge amount this season.  After the Toulon fiasco, this year was always going to be about rebuilding.  Winning six out of six in the pool was a huge, surprising bonus, although the golden egg turned out to be a date with one of very few teams that actually expects to win in Thomond.  Zebo, Sherry, O’Mahony, O’Donnell, Murray, Jones and Barnes have all been handed their first Heineken Cup starts – that’s half a team right there.  It’s also Ryan’s first season as a HEC starter. 

Not all the newies are of Generation Ligind standard, but there are good players in there.  O’Mahony and Murray have become fixtures in the Ireland XXII and Sherry and Zebo will surely go on to win international honours.  Felix Jones played poorly on Sunday, but is obviously a class player who has a big future.  O’Donnell looked a bit overawed by the occasion, and it’s been a hard season for Barnes, but it’s early-ish days for both.  McGahan deserves credit for this – he has been unafraid to leave out the likes of Leamy and O’Callaghan for younger, more effective players.  It’s all money in the bank for next year.

Munster’s biggest problem this season has been a lack of ball-carrying heft.  Coughlan is outstanding in this regard (51m carried on Sunday), but he needs a couple of other players to share the burden (and not the scrum-half in an ideal world).  Ryan and O’Connell chip in with yards, but the rest of the backrow is a tad light – for all the good stuff O’Mahony has done this season, he isn’t a huge carrier.  Niall Ronan brought something different to the table, and helped Munster play at a higher tempo, but once he got injured they were stretched.  Looking forward, Munster need another carrier in the backrow.  Wally’s absence has been keenly felt, but can he rouse himself for one more season?  It looks unlikely – he’ll probably be deployed in 20 minute bursts from here on.

Elsewhere, things look ok.  Crucially, there is no danger of O’Connell or ROG disappearing over the horizon any time soon.  Next year will see a new coach arrive with new ideas.  A brand new pair of centres will be coming (again). Downey will give Munster a target to carry ball, and even if he’s one dimensional, he is effective, and he should suit them, although Rog will need to be closer to the gainline to get the best from him. 

Something a bit more constructive is required in attack, where Munster’s lack of cutting edge was cruelly exposed by Ulster. All 3 of the outside backs missed crucial tackles for Gilroy’s try, and the youngest of them, Zebo is still very raw for this level – he needs to work on his basic skills over the summer, lest he turn into another Vasily Artemyev.  Earls’ skillset at centre has improved hugely, and it would be a mistake to shunt him back to the wing – Munster need to build their game around him.  With that in mind, some investment in Ian Keatley is required.  He has been no better than average this year, but should be given a chance to play with the first team.  He needs to get to the level where he can be seen as a viable replacement for ROG in the last 20 minutes of Heineken Cup games.  Munster needed a converted try in the dying minutes on sunday, and a fly-half with a breaking threat might have asked some questions of the Ulster defence which they hadn’t had to think about up until then.  ROG is still the man, but a Plan B would be nice.

Munster probably won’t win the Heineken Cup in the next couple of seasons, but there’s no danger of a Wasps-like fall from grace either.  Defeats at Thomond Park will continue to be rare – and will continue to be cherished by those teams that achieve them.  Shtand uuuuuuup for the etc.

Advertisements

9 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  April 10, 2012

    Yyyyyyeeeeeeeoooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!

    SUFTUM!

  2. A good piece. I liked the Stoop analogy it was a good fit. Its much more accurate than the “they out Munstered Munster” cliche doing the rounds. The analysis of both Munster and Ulster was well thought out.

    Is Ulsters lack of depth a worry moving forward though.

  3. Anonymous

     /  April 10, 2012

    The lack of depth is pretty much confined to the front row… after that, there are numerous viable options.

    Of course, an injury to Fez or Pienaar and we’re in a bit of bother – while Marshall can come in for Pienaar at scrum half, it’d mean trusting the boot of iHumph off the tee. Fez would simply be a loss to any team.

  4. @Anon & Red Stag some good squad players there, but a cut below what’s in the first team I reckon (for the moment). Faloon for Henry? I think he would have been smashed to smithereens out there. Stevenson? Not bad but Tuohy and Muller were off the charts in terms of work rate and lineout. I’m not seeing a long term problem though because the academy are churning out good players, and I think there will be guys pushing the incumbents over the next couple of seasons (including in the front row).

  5. Anonymous

     /  April 10, 2012

    Yep, well, your always going to have to accept some drop from a 1st teamer to a sub/squad player… otherwise they would be in the first team already.

    I’m happy with the Ulster squad (bar front row depth and fly half) – what isn’t first choice is largely young, Irish, inexpensive and hungry. I’d rather that than a squad of older, NIQ journeymen on big bucks. If not taking the latter means a bit of green-ness and a slight drop in quality – then so be it.

  6. P White

     /  April 10, 2012

    I watched the game again and I am almost certain that the only time a Ulster player touched the ball in Munster 22 was Gilroy for the try, a pretty amazing thing.

    For all their possession and territory, I think the idea doing the rounds that Munster ‘played all the rugby’ is not right. Can anyone remember one genuine try scoring chance they created in the second half? Even one moment where you thought ‘that was close’? I remember a number of kicks into the corner that the crowd in Thomand adore above all else. I remember awful moments of handling from Mafi, Jones and Zebo. I do not remember any rugby played outside of the pack though.

    It will be interesting to read Quinlans next piece in the Irish Times. He has had a great start to his career as a columnist so far but this is a big test for him as such a recently retired Munster player.

  7. @P White – correctamundo. For all Ulster’s 180,000 tackles we can only recall them scrambling on three occasions – once for the try, once when Ferris nailed Coughlan with a brilliant tackle and once when Earls ran a super line from deep and Cave held on brilliantly. They couldn’t get the quick ball they needed to really turn the screw.

    Interestingly, Quinlan took the opportunity to talk more about Ulster than Munster… make of that what you will, I guess!

  8. P White

     /  April 12, 2012

    Actually, despite it being a bit of a nothing piece, it could have been worse. It was taking the easy option in some ways but he avoided a number of traps he could have fallen into as a freshman Munster retiree. He did not assign blame outside the Munster team, he did not overly criticise and he did not go down the ‘in my day….’ road that others would have done. Hopefully he takes a week to review the game and he writes another piece analysing the match in detail which he will be very good at.

  1. Heineken Cup Final: the Ulster Reaction « Whiff of Cordite
%d bloggers like this: