Make Twickenham Forget Last Year

Man, its such a relief when the HEC rolls back round – the all-encompassing juggernaut that is the national team sucks all rational debate from its surroundings like light into a black hole, then disappears over the horizon with fists flying and noise levels rising like a bunch of 2-year olds in a sweet shop. The Heineken Cup just seems nicer, more orderly, and more suitable to sitting down with a beer and having a sensible conversation about rugby. The loud loutish fools who clamber aboard the patriotism wagon are nowhere to be seen, and you are left with an educated and intelligent fanbase.

This even extends to the pundits – in December, Quinny went on Newstalk and dismissed Munster’s chances of beating Saracens in Thomond Park, extending his gimlet eye down the teamsheet and just not seeing enough evidence of the class to win. In March, the same person was nodding in a sanguine fashion as Frankie blamed the Cigarette-Smoking Man for making Deccie drop Rog.

We have ourselves dismissed Munster’s chances this week, so let’s move on to the other province in the Big Gig – Ulster. On paper, the Ulster quarter-final looks the only one that might be close – Clermont are nigh-on unbeatable in the Marcel Michelin, and Montpellier don’t bring the same energy on the road as they do at home, Munster’s last two away games featured implosions against Treviso and Glasgae, and, for all Leicester’s blood, thunder and Tom Croft, they just don’t have the pack or halves to compete with mighty (nouveau riche) Toulon.

That Ulster aren’t at home and favourites is down to their own blundering – a week after tearing the all-talk-and-no-trousers Saints pack a new one, they meekly laid down at home to them. Losing at home is simply unacceptable to the best teams in Europe, and it shows Ulster have a while to go. Toughing out a win in Castres was a good riposte, but this is a whole new level altogether. Their pool was rather weak – the Northampton Saints are no-one’s idea of a barometer of manliness, Castres lay down like the Euro-bunnies they are, and Glasgow showed nothing of their Pro12 form in the HEC.

So it’s a trip to Twickers, just like last year. That went well, didn’t it? Errrr… The hope (and expectation) is that Ulster will have learned from their big day out in May, and the experience of playing there will set them in good stead. But will they be able to win?

The good news for Ulster is that Saracens are utterly woeful at getting to the ball to their talented outside backs – properly-serviced, Tompkins, Strettle, Ashton and Goode should be killing teams out wide, but they rarely see the ball. Ulster have a good record of late against teams that rely heavily on their packs – Munster, Saints and Castres for example. If Ulster can neuter the Saracens forwards, they have the weaponry to do damage – they are adept at getting Gilroy and Trimble in off their wings, and Jared Payne is a rare talent.

Neutralizing the Sarries forwards is about slowing the ball down – with a ponderous scrum-half, a kicking ten, and a boshing twelve, they very much rely on their more dynamic pack members (Vunipola, Brits, Hargreaves, Joubert) spotting gaps then offloading to trailing runners or recycling ball quickly and forcing last-ditch penalties from defenders. That’s a game Ulster will be confident they can deal with.

The three key men are Johann Muller, Darren Cave, and, particularly, Chris Henry. Ulster’s pack in the absence of Muller is notably worse – decision-making suffers and the lineout is much more fallible – expect a tight and controlled aggressive performance with the Springbok in tow. Cave marshalls the defensive line excellently, and Ulster will need to be extremely disciplined in defence as well as scrambling effectively when Saracens do get going. And as for Henry, a contender for player of the pool stages, his job is to slow down ball, frustrate the Saracens forwards, and manufacture a dogfight. If Henry bosses the breakdown, Ulster have half the job done.

Another factor is Ulster’s favour is the presence of Romaine Poite in the middle. Poite is a contrary character, but he rewards a dominant tight five at scrum-time, and doesn’t tend to do what home fans want him to. Saracens backups of Rhys Gill and John Smit are better scrummagers than the starters, and if Saracens are forced to bring them in earlier than they want to, Ulster will be setting the tempo of the match.

Ultimately, Ulster are going to look to keep their line intact and restrict Farrell to 4 to 5 kickable penalties. After that, they will ask themselves: do they have the firepower to score one try and kick a few goals of their own? They would be confident that they do – Saracens are an extremely tough nut, particularly at home, but Ulster won’t fear them, and would probably fancy themselves in a mano-a-mano knock-out tie, especially at a venue where they will have 20,000 supporters and a need to exorcise some ghosts.

Something we haven’t heard too  much of yet is the Mark McCall factor – McCall won the Celtic League in his time at Ravers, but left under a cloud as the squad fractured asunder – the unity and singularity of purpose of Ulster’s squad this season has been admirable, and one can imagine Humph waking up in a cold sweat at the prospect of having to congratulate McCall on knocking his Project out of the HEC. You can bet your bottom dollar this is a match Ulster will bring their A game to.

But will it be enough? Saracens have impressed us every time we have seen them in the Premiership this year, but were rather underwhelming for the HEC group stages. Ulster, on the other hand, have wobbled badly after a dream start to the season. Ulster look a more balanced and complete team, but are still re-integrating after injury (and are missing Fez and Tommy Bowe). Saracens have all the form and the glamour and home advantage. It’s very tight, but Saracens might just squeeze through. We hope we are wrong of course, and Saracens reliance on Owen Farrell’s boot can work both ways. If Ulster cross the line twice, or defend something like they did in Thomond last year, or at the RDS on saturday night they will win. Otherwise, and most improbably, Munster will be the last Irish team in the HEC come the Sunday Mass kickoff in Lahn.



  1. Ireland's Answer. (@allthingsrugby1)

     /  April 4, 2013

    Excellent! Personally I can’t see Ulster losing. Key man: Afoa. If he gets on top I can’t see Saracens living with the Ulster backs.

  2. Rava

     /  April 4, 2013

    Just one point. Twickenham isn’t “home” for Saracens. From a crowd point of view, Ulster will at least match them for numbers. (even if a good few of those will be Leinster and Munster supporters)

    • True. It’s a nominal home, but the home advantage is certainly diulted. If Ulster can match them for numbers then it will go a long way to neautralising the venue.

      • ORiordan

         /  April 4, 2013

        Sheer numbers may not be that significant either. I was at the Saracens v Leinster game at Wembley a few years ago and Saracens seemed to have given away tickets to loads of school kids, who weren’t that interested in the game and certainly didn’t generate the volume of noise and level of support that the Leinster supporters did.

        • I have heard it sais that they often generate huge crowds, but they wouldn’t necessarily be the most knowledgable when it comes to what’s happening out on the pitch.

  3. Chogan (@Cillian_Hogan)

     /  April 4, 2013

    Top stuff. Keep it up.
    As Matt Williams puts it “There’s no better weekend of rugby than 1/4 finals weekend of the Heineken Cup”.

  4. Rava

     /  April 4, 2013

    “Losing at home is simply unacceptable to the best teams in Europe, and it shows Ulster have a while to go. Toughing out a win in Castres was a good riposte, but this is a whole new level altogether.”
    Of course losing at home is unacceptable, ask Leinster this season. However to suggest Ulster have a while to go is to overlook the performances over the last three seasons (We probably came closest to beating ASM in France of any team in recent past).
    I was a lot less confident going into last years Quarter Final that I am this year.

  5. Nice overview. Having been in Twickenham as an Ulster supporter last year, I’m hoping for something very different this time. The mid-season dip in form was pretty worrying, but we seem to have got most of our personnel back from injury and international duty at just the right time. Even better, the spirit of the first half of the season also seems to have returned. As for the rumours of Bowe being named to the bench, there’s always a fear of him being rushed back, but with the exception of Ferris, there’s probably no one who’d getter a louder roar from the fans were he to get 10-20 minutes to show his stuff. If things are tight coming down to the wire, that could be a balance-tipper all on its own…

    • Amiga500

       /  April 4, 2013

      I wouldn’t say the dip was worrying – the cause was quite clear – aside from injuries reducing our experience across the board, our breakdown became a shambles in the absence of Rory Best, Chris Henry (internationals) and Sean Doyle (broken leg). Without the experience to compensate, we were found short. Often.

      To me it was more disappointing. It pretty much confirms that the likes of Mike McComish and Ali Birch are not gonna make it to the required level of a Pro12 first 15 and should perhaps be asked to consider broadening their wings (i.e. moving). I’d rather the gametime went on someone young enough to improve to a very high level rather than on a man that (while honest), is never gonna set the world on fire.

      Another couple of more general points of note. Funny that Rory Best’s lineout throwing seemed grand on Sat when he was throwing to competent calls. Gatland will no doubt be watching with interest this Sat.

  6. rachel685

     /  April 4, 2013

    I agree that Saracens were underwhelming across much of the group stages, but when they are on form they are quite difficult to beat and they’ve been very much on form in the Premiership lately (they took Quins apart comprehensively and clinically just two weeks ago). With the exception of Matt ‘penalty machine’ Stevens they tend to keep their discipline in defence and they don’t give much away. Twickenham also isn’t technically Saracens’ home, but they will be quite comfortable there (bearing in mind as well that so many of them have just come back from England duty). Where Twickers is likely to make a difference is in their style of play. They’ve become a lot faster and more experimental on their artificial pitch now, but I think we can expect them to revert to a much tighter game in the QF.

    Having said that, I think WoC are spot on in their assessment of how Ulster can win. The absolute key is to neutralise the dynamic forwards – especially Vunipola, Brits and Will Fraser, who has been on a real hot streak lately and was instrumental in the Quins smackdown. Once that’s done, Ulster will need to get the psychological edge by punching holes in Sarries’ defence – an aspect of their game of which Saracens are usually, and justly, proud – and the best way to do that will be out wide. Ashton has shown very faint glimmers of form in the last Premiership match or two, but he is undoubtedly their backline’s weakest link in defence and, fortunately for Ulster, he’s up against Gilroy. if Gilroy can dance his way past Ashton once or twice, it will be difficult for Sarries to come back. They’re very comfortable when they’re on top and will even play a faster and wider style if they think they’re dominant, but they are considerably less effective at chasing games. If Ulster get on top early, and maintain serious discipline in defence (because Farrell will keep the points ticking over if Ulster are sloppy), they should be able to come away with a win.

    • solidalarry

       /  April 4, 2013

      No doubt you’ll have seen more of Sarries than I this year. They seem to be on a remorseless run of form right now. I’m not hopeful, but it would truly delight me to upset both members of the bulldog household within eight days. But, again, don’t think it’s likely.

      Apropos your points above: I thought Gilroy was sensational at the RDS. In some ways his best game for Ulster.

      • rachel685

         /  April 4, 2013

        Ah, you had to go and mention last weekend, didn’t you Larry? In all seriousness, though, that was a fantastic Ulster performance, so a (grudging) tip of the tiara to you.

        Sarries v Ulster is just too close to call. I think a lot will depend on early momentum; from my extensive Saracens viewing this season, my sense is that they are extremely hard to beat when they dominate early, but they very much struggle to catch up when they start to fall behind. Chasing games doesn’t come naturally to their style of play and they can have a tendency to force things when they start to panic. If Ulster bring their most ruthless, clinical game, they should be perfectly placed to exploit those gaps if/when they appear.

      • solidalarry

         /  April 4, 2013

        I’m shameless – but it’s a rare win for us and I don’t feel apologise one bit!

        Not underdogging, but I fancy Sarries. They seem to be (read: are) far more consistent at the minute. If we come out blasting we can do it. Northampton away is the benchmark performance in that sense (though Saracens are much better than Saints, who have slipped back a bit IMO). Anything else and I fear they’ll control the match.

        I’ll be in Twickenham anyway, losing my voice as usual, so looking forward to it immensely.

      • rachel685

         /  April 5, 2013

        Saracens are much, much better than Saints right now. The key will be to force them to lose composure.

        I’ll be there as well – though I fear I’ll probably be voiceless, since I plan to lose mine tonight at the Wasps v Leinster match! Very much looking forward to a big weekend of rugby, though I have to admit that when we booked these tickets I didn’t think I’d be needing quite so many layers of thermals to protect my delicate bulldog self from the freezing cold.

  7. Johnny

     /  April 4, 2013

    Big Nick is the key man for me to break tackles and start something from nothing when we’ve got the ball in the tight. What a revelation he’s been this year.

  8. Last week I was fairly gloomy about Ulster’s chances, but the fire that made us unbeaten (and, at times, unbeatable, I’m both surprised and delighted to be able to say) earlier in the season returned in Dublin. Leinster and Sarries are a contrast of styles with the ball, but surprisingly similar without, both relying on attacking defence (as opposed to containment) and serious breakdown sides; the win on Saturday was an end in itself, a superb result and very pleasing performance, but also perfect preparation for this weekend.

    Not perfect is the fact that John Afoa is only getting back from Nu Ziln today, but he’s been a non-stop beast for us (even if I’m not convinced he’s enjoying himself that much) and I think we’ll still see a big shift from him.

    Anyway, we have a lot of very good players and most of them will be available. If we can keep last week’s tempo and restore our early-season accuracy, I think we can go there and make the match ours. If not, we’re relying on Saracens underperforming – which would not leave me hopeful.

    Leinster – Wasps should be an entertaining match regardless of the result.

    As for Munster… honestly, there was so much to admire in the first half in Scotstoun, but what came after was unacceptable – just too easy. Glasgow were a decent side, then a good one, now perhaps a very good one, and if you give them those opportunities they’ll crush you. However, not to sound like I’m dancing to the bullshit beat of Thomond Magic (I think a special group of players, now mostly retired or on the cusp, were rather more sorcerous than anything else), not many teams have taken the early game to the Warriors on their own turf like that in years. It was very impressive. Quins are a top side, I think I rate them more highly than WoC does, and I can’t see this mid-table Munster getting the win. But they don’t have no chance.

  9. Ben M

     /  April 4, 2013

    “The loud loutish fools who clamber aboard the patriotism wagon are nowhere to be seen, and you are left with an educated and intelligent fanbase”

    Ah yes, you get a superior sort of fan here all right. Those know nothings who hold debentures or have been going to Lansdowne Road for the past 30 odd years wouldn’t know rugby at all!

    Get over yourselves lads. Ye are the very ones offering opinions in the 6 Nations based on nothing more than what ye read in the paper and rumours ye heard in the pub.

    • Amiga500

       /  April 4, 2013

      You miss the line above that?

      “The Heineken Cup just seems nicer, more orderly, and more suitable to sitting down with a beer and having a sensible conversation about rugby.”

      Nothing like reading what you want to read and not what is actually written.

      They are right – much more reasoned discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of each team will occur this weekend pre-match than would occur before any 6n match. Be it in a pub or on the blogsphere. Pointing out that fact is not arrogant, just observant.

      • Ben M

         /  April 5, 2013

        Amiga I didn’t miss any of the lines but I am quoting one of them and to me it suggests that the writer has an inflated sense of their own ‘fan’ status.

        Personally I’ve been having ‘sensible conversations about rugby’ (or let’s be honest here voicing my opinion and talking shite about rugby) in pubs for the last 20 odd years.

        That doesn’t make me a better or superior fan than someone who only started following Leinster two seasons ago.

        I have no problem with the actual meat of the blog and debating what might happen over the weekend but I take issue with the holier than thou approach.

        Oh and not to rain on the parade but one of the reasons that more people debate the Ireland team is because ultimately it is more important. But hey that’s just my opinion voiced in the pub in a reasonable manner.

      • Amiga500

         /  April 5, 2013

        Erm, I’m not sure if your reading it as “blogger better than pubber” rather than what I am reading it as; “average international supporter will know less about the game
        than “average provincial/club supporter”. Simply because there are more international supporters who don’t know the game that lower the average.

      • Ben M – we’re not trying to make out that we’re better than anyone – we just find that the tone of discussion tends to be quite shrill and hysterical around Six Nations time. The weird irony is that interprovincial sh*t-stirring is at its absolute worst when Ireland are playing, not the provinces. During the H-Cup everyone is much more civil towards one another.

        Have you ever visited the match thread in the hours after a matchday? It’s an eye-opener.

        • Ben M

           /  April 6, 2013

          I long since gave up on Boards. Anonymity breeds arrogance online.
          Whiff I take your point about provincial bias but I think you have been guilty of some of that here.
          Lets be honest, none of us know more about pro rugby than the people playing and coaching it but there has been a tendency to damn those people with faint praise while ‘jovially’ having a right cut off them e.g. Ralagate 🙂

  10. Studs Up

     /  April 4, 2013

    Agreed. They need to replicate the performance they managed against Northampton away in the pool stages (game of the tournament so far) to be in with a sniff. Rory Best was outstanding that night in every aspect of the game and Ulster need that again from him in order to progress.

    • ORiordan

       /  April 4, 2013

      “Rory Best was outstanding that night in every aspect of the game”… except the line-out. Ulster lost 5/9 throws in that game, but the nature of the victory meant that got overlooked. Ulster’s line-out also fell apart away against Castres (6/17 lost). Saracens will certainly think Ulster’s line-out can be got-at so it is one of the many things Ulster need to get right on Saturday.

      • Sam

         /  April 4, 2013

        The fuctioning of the lineout in the game against Castres was the most disastrous of the whole season, I’m sure it skews the success % in the pool stage. Half the time the jumpers weren’t even jumping so I don’t know what on earth was going on. Both Muller and Tuohy were missing though. I’m happy enough with our lineout, esp with Muller there calling them, but Rory does need to keep his cool and watch those overthrows close to their line.

      • pete (buachaill on eirne)

         /  April 5, 2013

        I think Best’s throwing has been pretty bad this year. He has been excellent around the park and in the tight but his throwing has been poor. 6Nations has more examples of it too.
        I don’t think he is set in stone as a Lions hooker yet

        • zdm

           /  April 6, 2013

          While its true to say that you don’t pick best for his “arra’s” you don’t drop him for it either.

          Ireland’s lifting, jumping and calling were a much bigger issue than the throwing this 6 N.

  11. Seiko

     /  April 4, 2013

    Bearing in mind the result of Paddy Wallace’s long distance commute to play in the last Test against NZ, are Ulster fans worried John Afoa’s form having just done a return trip from the delivery room in New Zealand?

    • It’s probably fair to say John’s a bit better than Paddy…

      However, tongue out of cheek, there is a question mark as it’s not a lot of time. Earlier in this season, or perhaps last, he went home to be best man at a wedding and rushed back with no ill effects. That said, I’m not sure that makes it a winning policy (or if the timescale was equally as tight). So, not ideal, but whether he would have played any better having missed the birth is also a relevant consideration.

    • Amiga500

       /  April 4, 2013

      Paddy Wallace came off the beach into a match he was not preparing for. John Afoa has been training and knows he will be playing.

      • Seiko

         /  April 4, 2013

        From reports at the time he had been training with some of the Ulster squad who were coming back from injury and had just gone on holiday. He also new he was on standby. He had started for Ireland at 12 against the Babarians 3 weeks previously, so he was as prepared as John Afoa (except Afoa will have to deal with a flight there and back before he plays his match).

        Its surprising that Anscombe allowed this to happen bearing in mind he would have been aware of the criticism that Kidney got for the P. Wallace situation.

      • I think it’s far from ideal. Having travelled to New Zealand, I can recall the wall of tiredness that is jetlag and how it hits you like a freight train. I’ve also experienced the delerium of having a baby! The thought of doing both at the same time and then having to play high intensity sport of any kind… yikes.

        But even still, Paddy Wallace was a different kettle of fish. I wouldn’t underestimate the mental switch-off that goes with being on holidays, whether on call or not. When you’re on holidays the last thing you want is to get dragged into work. Ugh, the thought of it!

  12. Scrumdog

     /  April 4, 2013

    Never write off Munster…they will step it up on up on the weekend.I really think they offer more with ball in hand and in defense with Keatley at the helm. Murray should make a difference after last weekend but he needs to use the ‘sweep pass’ and get the ball out quickly to his ten…just too ponderous for a scrum half. The backrow is missing some bite and the Kilcoyne-Archer tandem is over rated and still in the development stages.

    Ulster were very impressive against Leinster last weekend and especially in the final few minutes with a gritty and organized defense and It was a stirring assault on Leinster’s part. I believe Madigan proved a point in the out half stakes. Good luck to all three Irish teams still at the races this weekend!!

  13. Yossarian

     /  April 5, 2013

    I like the no holds barred approach we get from this blog. I don’t always agree but I respect the fact it is never sugar coated. People don’t enjoy criticism but the people you say are targeted are paid enormous sums of money and this is what comes with the territory. Full time print media journalists depend on the good will of the coaches for interviews/articles and therefore their livelihood. They are also personally friends with the players and therefore understandably reluctant to criticise.
    On here we get the writers opinions if you don’t like it you don’t have to read it. Keep up the good work lads!

  14. Mullser

     /  April 5, 2013

    Bejasus, Its getting kinda hot in here. Anybody looking forward to the rugby this weekend?

  15. WoC, any thoughts on the other 2 quarter finals? Or is predicting 2 home wins for Clermont and Toulon obvious? I give Tigers a chance in Toulon, actually.

    • We’re going for two home wins. I’m not sure Tigers have the ability to go and win in France. Toulouse dealt with them pretty comfortably in their home game and, heck, Leicester were pretty fortunate to get out of Treviso with their win. Toulon look like they mean business.

      Hard to see Montpellier winning in the Marcel Michelin. They are exceptional at home, but rarely bring their A game on the road.

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