Missing Muller

Ulster might have reached the HEC knock-out stages for a third successive year, but there was a rather anti-climactic feel to their qualification due to the lack of a home quarter-final, and the last two underwhelming performances at Ravers will have gone a long way towards it. They looked nailed-on for a home QF after round three, and it wasn’t supposed to be this way after that memorable win in Northampton.

After the disappointing loss in the return fixture with the Saints came the failure to get a bonus point at home to Glasgae. Now that might sound presumptuous, but Ulster should have scored four tries – and failure to do so put them behind Saracens (and Toulon) in the final rankings. The dirty win in Castres was about as good as they were going to get, and winning games in France is a tough habit to get into – so that’s a plus, but the Glasgow game was a disappointment.

They were let down by a curious helter-skelter panicky second quarter when they threw the ball around like confetti in minging conditions instead of sticking it up the jumper and trying to control it better, then a third quarter where they completely switched off. It took a few changes in the pack and the introduction of Paul Marshall to snap them back into gear – and two tries promptly followed.

Although Ulster might be able to replicate some of the lineout work of Johann Muller with a combination of NWJMB and Robbie Diack, they were unable to replace the captaincy skills and leadership qualities Muller brings to the table. There is no way the former Springbok would have allowed Ulster to take the ball out of the tight in the second quarter when in the Glasgae 22.

The absence of Muller was compounded by the ongoing unavailability of Fez and injury to Dan Tuohy – Ulster lost 3 cornerstones of their pack and couldn’t replace their influence. Chris Henry had a good game and was, as usual, the lynchpin of Ulster, but Rory Best and John Afoa were quiet – too quiet. The failure to get a grip on the game until late on was ultimately their undoing – this was an average Glasgae side and, conditions allowing, Ulster needed to slap them down early and then milk tries. And they couldn’t do it.

A comparison of the three games where Muller started and the three he didn’t are revealing:

  • Muller starts: Played 3 (2 away, 1 home), Points difference 14-0, Try difference 9-2
  • Muller doesn’t start: Played 3 (1 away, 2 home), Points difference 9-5, Try difference 3-2

Of course, Ulster had many more injuries than just Muller, but the shaky lineout and general frenzy indicate that Muller was missed more than most.

Thankfully for Ulster, the HEC knock-out stages are somewhat of a new tournament, and one can expect them to have a full selection by then (injuries will be managed with an early-April start in mind) with the exception of Tommy Bowe.

If Saracens switch the game to Wembley or Twickers or some other giant stadium, it will make the task easier, but Ulster have a mountain to climb that they have helped make themselves.

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20 Comments

  1. Michael

     /  January 24, 2013

    Lads, I think you are stretching it here a wee bit on a sample size of 3 games.

    Whilst your overall point is valid that Muller is a good player and Ulster miss him and his leadership, the lack of tries is probably more likely to be caused by the injuries to Payne, Bowe, the fact the away game was in France, and Jacksons dip in form.

    The overall points difference is of course a related contingency, but compounded by the injuries in the pack to Williams, Wilson and Tuohy.

    All that said, keep up the good work. Love the site.

    • Thanks Michael – it’s hard to draw straight-line inferences in rugby for sure, three games (well six, really) or otherwise. For sure Ulster had more and more players missing as the pool wore on, but Muller’s influence was the most missed. We reckon it’s safe to infer that he brings a real calming influence and clear-headed thinking to Ulster. It wasn’t so much the results as the slightly frenzied, uncontrolled nature of Ulster’s play in the final three pool games that has led us to this conclusion.

  2. Rava

     /  January 24, 2013

    Mmm.

  3. Johnny

     /  January 24, 2013

    Several first choice pivotal players injured and still got a win in France. Maybe that’s the key indicator of this year vs the last several.

    • Amiga500

       /  January 24, 2013

      Losing bonus point last year in Clermont…. not many do that.

      Could have been a win but for blind Dave Pearson.

  4. abitofshoepie

     /  January 24, 2013

    Love the blog, but not sure of this analysis. Glasgow are a good side, picking up 8 points against them was a great achievement. The home match against Northampton was the killer, there did seem to be of an air of complacency that night. I think Rory Best has since publically admitted that they took their foot off the gas. Any side would miss a player and leader like Muller, but it was the unforced errors against Northampton, and dare I say it a little dip in Pienaar’s form, that left Ulster all of a sudden chasing a win in the last 20 mins against Northampton.

    I don’t think they have much to fear from Saracens. Munster were their equals over the double header and I think a fully fit Ulster side will have more in their armoury. The only worry I have is the battle between the kickers. The boy wonder Farrell is a great kicker, despite missing some easyish ones at Thomand Park, whereas Jackson seems a bit weak, especially from the right hand side of the pitch, and Pienaar is too confident at times, trying to knock them over from 55 metres when a kick to touch would be a better use of the penalty. We almost could do with having Radge….

    • Thanks shoepie, little to fear from Saracens, but they’ll be tough to beat. As for Glasgow, they’re a stickier proposition than Edinburgh, but it wasn’t so much the failure to get the bonus point in and of itself, but the manner in which Ulster completely lost control of the game in the middle 40 minutes that caused the most concern.

    • Amiga500

       /  January 24, 2013

      No buckin way would I want Radge near the squad!

      [Besides, believe it or not, Keatley has better kicking stats this season]

  5. Broff

     /  January 24, 2013

    I don’t think Jackson is good enough to be a Heineken cup winning outhalf just yet. That for me is Ulsters biggest problem, hope I’m wrong

  6. paddy

     /  January 24, 2013

    Now lads your straying into the realm of the “brave n faithful” -“If we get O’Connel back we could beat Quins etc.”

    Muller is a big player for Ulster but they were missing 3 other starters from the pack and 2 backs for the game against Castre. If they get 3 or 4 of them players back for the knockouts I’d back them to beat Saracens. There’s a world of difference between their squad and Ulsters.

    Could be right about the leadership thing though. They just got too used to him calling the shots they didn’t realise they’d have to step up until it became obvious.

    They were unbeaten up until that game against Saints and I think they took their foot off the gas at an inopportune time. I think it takes a lot of mental effort to keep winning in tight games week in week out. Even the all blacks are capable of a stinker.

  7. Bowe Gathers

     /  January 24, 2013

    Couldn’t agree more WoC, the line out has been a real area of concern since Muller and Tuohy joined a large injury list. Case in point, against Castres we literally only challenged one line out the whole match, in a game full of set pieces. Diack is giving of his best, as are Stevenson and McComb/ish but we really miss a top quality line out snaffler in the HC especially. Without it our backs have no ball and they were the ones scoring tries from deep for fun when Muller was fit.

    I also agree with shoepie – whisper it quietly but Ruan has been poor of late. The issue is our ball is slow and his passing can be a bit sloppy (again, see Castres). But then, after fifteen minutes of dross, he’ll put such a beautiful box into touch, or a fifty metre penalty, that has Ulster fans on our knees praising the lord Humphreys above for his wisdom and mercy. And then PJ gets the blame for a poor performance. I’m not saying Jackson is the finished article, but Pienar doesn’t help him at times. Blasphemy indeed

    • Rocky

       /  January 24, 2013

      I think there were a few things that contributed to our last three HEC performances. Firstly, I think you are 100% correct about Muller. He brings an air of calmness and his leadership is exemplary, not to mention his work rate, which is second to none.
      Dare I say it, but I think the otherwise superb selections of Mark Anscombe were slightly awry in those matches. I know that you guys have been almost idolising NWJMB (and with good reason) but I think it was a mistake to throw him in as lock against the physicality of the Saints locks and then against Al Kellock, the most under-rated lock in these islands, who had Hendo in his pocket for most of the Glasgow match. I thought McComb added to our scrummaging with his extra beef and was harder to bully physically. Playing Diack or Hendo at 6 and bringing the other on after 60 minutes would have been better, I think.
      I also think it was a mistake to play Muller at 10 against Castres. At nine, he controls the match wonderfully, whereas, at ten, he plays like a scrum half – he doesn’t bring the ball to the gain line or threaten the opposition defence the way a proper outhalf should. He got out of position and allowed Max Evans to wriggle past for Castres’ try. When Paddy J came on and Ruan went to scrum half, there was a huge change in our play and we were much the better side for the last 20 minutes.
      Also, I believe Paul Marshall works a lot better as a game-changing sub than as a starting scrumhalf at that level. It will be interesting to see how he and PJ get on tomorrow evening in Galway.
      Finally, keep up the good work – the best (and most thought-provoking) blog around.

      • I presume you mean Pienaar at 10! Thanks for the comments. We were just saying that we think Ulster’s HEC performances in general have not been good enough this season – compared to last year when they had 3 standout performances (Clermont twice and Leicester H), this year they only have had one, and failed to get a home QF from a bunny pool.

        Saracens away is a game that can breed a lack of focus because of the new stadium / moneybags etc, but, make no mistake, only the Saints away performance would suffice if they want another semi-final.

  8. Connachtexile

     /  January 24, 2013

    I know what you mean about standout performances but Ulster have being doing what ever it takes to win be it ugly or otherwise and that’s the mark of a champion. Yes it would be great to win by playing champagne rugby every week but sometimes just grinding a team down is the way to do it. I’ve felt that last year Ulster would have lost against Castres but the belief and grit shown by the boys got them through. An if you compare them to say Leinster, Munster and Connacht who’ve had there share of injury crises this season to there first teamers Ulster’s second string have performed above and beyond most people’s expectations. I really think and hope they can go all the way this year.

    • Chris

       /  January 24, 2013

      Was just about to make a comment about winning ugly myself Connachtexile and I totally agree.

      Yes Ulster haven’t played as well as last year or had those big performances but they are still winning and that’s what it takes.

      Muller definitely has a calming influence but so should Bestie; there have been comments made about him being potential Lions captain material but if he can’t pull the heads in at Ulster I don’t think he would be the man for the job down here!

      • The ‘Bunny’ pool opponents are the second best Rab12 side, 4th in the Top 14 and 4th in the Aviva. I suppose there is an argument that Ulster were lucky not to have drawn the likes oc Racing or Edinburgh, Sale, Cardiff, Zebre etc,those giants of the Heineken.

  9. WoC must disagree about Ulster being in a Bunny group, just look at the current league position of the teams in the group. Also can’t really see Saracens playing at Allianz Park firmly convinced that this just a publicity stunt on their behalf. Doubt if they will get agreement to 15K as at present the local authority and resident have not even experienced 10k . My feeling is that it will be back to Twickers again.
    The plastic pitch would be no problem for Ulster as they already train indoors on a 3G pitch at Jordanstown and have been offered access to Crusaders soccer pitch as well as Ballyshannon RFC rugby 4G pitch.

    • It was a relatively easy group no matter what way you look at it…and certainly compared to Ulster’s group last year! Northampton were the top tier team…but only on the basis of 2011 (and the bizarre Heineken Cup seeding). They are a weaker side now, having lost key players. Glasgow is Glasgow. Castres will always be tough at home but that’s it.

      Definitely an opportunity lost for a home quarter final. Still fancy Ulster against Saracens though if they can get Muller and Ferris back. After that, a home semi-final is key.

  10. mikebrad

     /  January 25, 2013

    I think saracens away will be a tricky game especially if any injuries are picked up during les six nations. Would agree about not making the most of some opportunities at home. However I think Ulster have definitely stepped it up this year especially in the rabo – even last year we struggled unless the first team were out. Games that we would have lost before have been won and its given some smaller names (McComb, Stevenson, Babyface Marshall) a chance to shine.

  11. Pete

     /  January 28, 2013

    I’d agree whole-heartedly that when Muller is absent, it is a massive blow to the team – which has only been furthered by the injuries to Tuohy and Stevenson. Henderson is a fantastic player already, but he’s not a lock, he’s a blindside, and shouldn’t have been ahead of McComb – a point I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face. I’d have rather put Diack at lock and Henderson at 6. The whole uncertainty has really caused the lineout to wobble, so many are quick to blame Best, but we had three laser-guided throwers at the start of the season and all had some absolute howlers in the period when Muller was absent.

    But the leadership is the key thing. We are just so much calmer and in control of our destiny with Muller around – Henry’s the only leader who seems to carry on without him around. I think we’d have that quarter-final at Ravers had he been fit.

    But we can win the tie we’ve got. If anything, the amount I feel confident about this alarms me.

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