The Last 2%

So Leinster saw off Schmidty, Johnny Sex-bomb and Isa Nacewa with a much-coveted Pro12 title – while Ulster were the better team over the year, Leinster were better on the day. They out-scored their hosts/visitors two tries to none, and looked a little more composed all day.

Their experience of bigger days certainly told, and they had ice in their veins at key moments. Ulster came out a tad over-exuberant and struggled to come to terms with Lacey’s refereeing, giving away 4 penalties in 8 minutes, while Leinster eschewed three points from an early penalty and went for the corner, resulting in their first try. Hurting your opponent at key times is something Leinster excel at – think early in the second half in Bordeaux last year.

Ulster had a similar situation with an hour gone – they had momentum and had turned Leinster over a few times, then earned a penalty in the corner at 12-19. Egg remarked to his companion that this was the time to go for the corner and try to really turn the screw on Leinster, but as he talked, the entire Ulster team walked backwards and prepared for Pienaar to take a shot. There was no discussion of going to the corner at all, which surprised us. What would Leinster have done? What would Munster have done – the theatrical conversation between O’Connell and O’Gara preceding the inevitable kick down the line is well known at this stage. We’re just not sure three points was what the doctor ordered at that stage in the game.

In the final analysis, Leinster were able to eke out tries and Ulster weren’t – or conversely, Leinster were able to keep Ulster out, while Ulster couldn’t do likewise – Leinster had key interventions to prevent tries – Boss after PJ’s chargedown, Sexton holding up Diack, the scrum just about holding up from 20-25 minutes.

Those little extra things, and the nous that comes from multiple finals (this was their sixth in three years under Joe Schmidt) told for Leinster – and Ulster will be back, hopefully with lessons learned. They have had another good season,  but the next step is going to be learning how to win these big games. It isn’t a given that a team will make that final step from contender either. Some teams climbed the mountain step by painful step (Munster), some went virtually straight to the top (Leinster), some seem to be forever bridesmaids, but do get the occasional fulfillment (Clermont) and some simply never do it (Northampton Saints).

Ulster’s homework this summer is to figure out what they need to add to their game, and plan accordingly. They seem to have most of the starting XV personnel in place (caveat, Fez is a massive loss) but just need to work out the next step – be it better execution, more ambition in the gameplan, a better use of the bench, whatever. Oddly, the one impact sub in the backline they had, Paul Marshall, was unused – having a Plan B would certainly be a start if Plan A wasn’t really working. Still, they can feel satisifed with their efforts in this years Rabo, and rest easy that they did the memory of the tragic Nevin Spence proud. As for Leinster, all you can say is Matt O’Connor has one hell of a tough job living up to this.

Postscript: John Lacey did not have a good game. Leaving aside his obvious frustration at the early penalties, Anscombe made an excellent point after the game – shouldn’t the best referee available be in charge for the final? Of the Celtic refs, Owens would have been that man – was there a reason he wasn’t there? Was it that we wanted an Irish ref? If so, it couldn’t have been Rolland, so the only other alternative was *gulp* Clancy. Last year, though, it was Poite, but presumably the best French refs were busy at the Top14 semi-finals. Getting to the nub of the issue then – if the Pro12 wants to be taken seriously, it needs to start awarding finals to referees with the kind of stature the league aspires to – Superstar Steve Walsh, opportunity knocks!

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44 Comments

  1. Disagree to an extent with your final point on referee’s – surely we need to be giving our big Rabo 12 games to indigenous referee’s. Shipping in Poite (or SH marquee ref’s) for the final is just wrong in my opinion. How else is the standard of refereeing going to improve without our Irish, Welsh, Scottish and future Italian referees getting exposure to these types of high level games?

    Owens is a class referee but he can’t go on forever – we need blokes like Lacey to get this exposure – just like players, it’s unfair to expect him to be automatically world class without getting the big game experience under his belt.

    I watched the game again at home again and I really didn’t think Lacey had a bad game overall (admittedly still with blue spec’s on, so I’m open to counter arguments on this!). The two blatantly wrong decisions he made was the Williams & Boss incident at the back of the scrum and Healy holding on to Afoa outside of the ruck which both should have been penalties for Ulster. Two mistakes yes but I certainly hope he will learn from them and be better next time.

    And back to my point above, now he’s got a game of the stature of a final behind him, you’d expect him to be more balanced/calmer next time round.

    • That’s a really good point, and something I have-meant to add – younger refs have to get experience somehow..

    • Also, Poite had a shocker last year. His appalling reffing of the scrum handed the game to Ospreys. It is rare I would endorse booing a ref off the pitch but you could understand it. His final scrum decision (awarding Ospreys instead of Leinster the penalty) was baffling and literally gave the game to Ospreys. For that – and the other reasons above – I’d take Lacey any day (not Clancy mind).

      • Agreed, the flip side to giving them big game experience is being strong enough to ditch the ones who clearly show inability to improve their consistency, correct interpretation, etc. The fact that Clancy is getting regular test matches is a very poor reflection of the IRB/IRFU referee review programme.

  2. ArtVandelay

     /  May 27, 2013

    Many Ulster fans on facebook are blaming the defeat on the ref but, for me, the key moments had nothing to do with the ref. Diack should’ve scored that try and if you are going to kick a penno to touch with 4 mins to go, you HAVE to get something out of it. Do either of these things and the complexion of the game changes greatly.

    I watched the first five minutes again last night to see the contentious first four penalties. To my mind, Lacey was entirely correct on the second and fourth (court coming from the side, Best not releasing madigan) and the first was borderline (muller was penalised for not rolling away but I think it was actually diack that committed the penalty). The third however was mystifying, offside when the ball was in open play. That’s probably an accurate reflection of the ref’s performance; some dodgy calls but not game changing.

    • Agreed – as an Ulster fan I was tempted to blame the ref at many points in the game. I still think that Sean O’Brien’s comments about Ulster cheating might have primed him to jump on infringements too quickly in the first ten minutes, but that doesn’t change the fact that a less easily rattled Ulster could have won the game. In the end, it was the difference in temperaments between the teams that made the result.

      As an addendum, as much as it may have pissed me off at the time, full respect to Nacewa for taking a yellow card to prevent a try and possibly save the game for his team.

  3. Bob

     /  May 27, 2013

    Under that sunny blue Dublin sky, what could be more appealing than the Adonis-like figure of Steve Walsh officiating this gladitorial combat? Those toned, tanned, and rippling muscles; that preened hair; the discreet forearm tattoo adding a certain je ne sais quoi…

    I’m with you on this one WOC!

  4. @Completebore

     /  May 27, 2013

    Most of the Ulster fans around me were blaming the ref (and annoyingly seemed to think that granted them permission to boo Sexton during his kicks; it died out thankfully, but still unnecessary and ignorant) but as said above Ulster lost this one by not being ruthless enough in both attack and defense. And that’s without watching the game back yet (waiting for the disappointment to subside).

    I don’t think Lacey had a great game and he seemed to let the breakdown become a bit of a lottery, but I thought he was poor rather than biased. One thing did become apparant as the game went on – during breaks in play for kicks at goal, there always seemed to be a Leinster player chatting to Lacey, Sexton even gave him a couple of pats on the back. Yet when roles were reversed it was as if he was radioactive and Ulster had been told to leave a 10 yard exclusion zone around him. Maybe of no significance, but I think teams that buddy up to refs can’t do themselves any harm.

    Not sure what Ulster need to do to kick on from here. Is it enough to let players like Olding, Gilroy and Jackson season a bit more? Add some signings (they feel short of half-backs and everybody wants/needs more top-class props)? It will be frustrating if they stall at this point, but at least they played some decent rugby on Saturday and were still mostly in the game, even it Leinster still looked most likely to find a way to win.

    • Amiga500

       /  May 27, 2013

      Our squad will be quite a bit stronger next year given the extra year of wisdom for those players you’ve named and the injured parties returning.

      Having Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall on the bench would have added quite a bit of impact when we were looking somewhat blunt (to my eyes anyway). Paddy Wallace and Chris Farrell also have to come back… Sean Doyle is only 22, Paddy McAllister could be a big impact player next year. The age profile is extremely encouraging.

      As it was, on Sat we were looking at big Iain Henderson being the only real impact player on the bench.

      About my only concern for next season is us maybe being a touch light at the 2nd row… as I would rather see Henderson at 6 rather than 5. Lewis Stevenson is a good man, but not sure if he can run at this level. The season after that (2014/2015), concerns are plentiful.

      – How to replace Muller’s leadership?
      – How to replace Afoa’s scrummaging, fringe defence and strong running?
      – How to replace Pienaar’s command? (assuming he goes back to SA for RWC2015)

  5. Len

     /  May 27, 2013

    Good points raised Lads especially regarding John Lacey. Congrats to both teams on continuing the run of hard fought, close Pro 12/Magners Finals. Not sure I’d agree with your use of Northampton as an example of a team that just doesn’t do it. A fifty percent return in Heineken Cup finals is hardly never doing it? Just clarifying the point I’m not defending Saints who I dislike most out of the English team.

    • Saints really are the nearly-men of English rugby though. They’ve made the Premiership playoffs for a good few years in a row now, but only just made the final which they lost as well. In terms of the HEC since they won it, they peaked in 2011 to reach the final after being in and around the playoffs (and winning the Challenge Cup in 2009), not making it out of their pools since.

  6. Aoife

     /  May 27, 2013

    If I was an Ulster supporter I would feel aggrieved about the ref’s decision to let Boss grab the ball from the scrum at the 20-25 min mark (that said, I couldn’t see the reason for the previous penalty against Mike Ross). However, the rest of the game seemed fairly even on the calls e.g. inconsistent calling of when a maul was formed, penalising players for holding on even though the tackler was off their feet etc. Also to note, having a “prestige” ref is no guarantee – Poite was brutal in last year’s final.

    I’m a Leinster supporter & I was worried at the match, certainly for the last 10 minutes. In hindsight it’s easy to say that they’re a winning team & they’d push it over the line. Maybe that is the case but it was a very well matched contest. As you say, the 2%, the Diack non-try etc were the difference.

    • Amiga500

       /  May 27, 2013

      Ross dropped the bind.

    • Did Court not pop up like a jack-in-the-box in the final of the scrums? Either way, it was totally senseless of Williams to stop playing with the ball having left the scrum. Have been majorly in awe of the shift Williams put in this season but that was a criminal error at the back of the scrum by an 8.

  7. I think that the point about experience is well made. Yes there were a couple of poor decisions, but a Leinster fan could just as easily claim that Henry should have been carded for kicking the ball out of Boss’ hands and that, given all of Ulster’s transgressions, it was a surprise that he waited until the start of the 2nd half to card Diack for his non-offence.

    My beef is with the extraordinary inconsistency between refs. If Poite or rolland had been in charge, Ulster probably wouldn’t have conceded any pens in the first 5 mins (or certainly many fewer) because they have a much more laissez-faire attitude at the ruck. Personally, I would tend towards the Lacey approach as it favours attack and penalises dodgy tactics such as flopping over the tackled player and resting one’s weight on the elbows whilst feigning competing for the ball (a favourite tactic of at least one highly esteemed backrow forward).

    Ultimately, it’s a shame that we need to discuss the ref, because despite his idiosyncrasies, Ulster could and should have won the final. That they didn’t is testament to Leinster’s excellence and Ulster’s lack of big game composure. Ulster will learn, and it will take a minor miracle for Leinster not to be adversely affected by the loss of Isa, J10 and Schmidt (along with Conway, Hagan, Browne, Carr, vdM). Ulster will hopefully continue their ascent as Leinster come off the summit.

  8. Bowe Gathers

     /  May 27, 2013

    Call it lack of big game composure, but the truth is we were beaten 2 tries to nil. When we were looking for that extra try or piece of magic nobody stepped up. It’s our lack of X-Factor that really hurts us I feel. We want a Fez type player (or Bowe to be involved, but he’s so isolated on the wing) to really just add a bit of something specal when we need it most. Pienaar does that but we couldn’t out kick Leinster and so we lost, plain and simple.

    Having said that, thinking back to last year when we were embarrased on a massive scale, we’ve improved tenfold in that big game scenario. Our performance and will to win genuinely had my blue mates who were at the game worried, and I thought for that last ten that maybe it was our year. Ultimately it was the loss in ravers against the Saints and our bizarre capitulation against Sarries that feel most bitter in the mouth for me.

    • Bowe was pretty heavily involved in the second half, as was Payne, but our finishing just wasn’t clinical enough. I noticed Payne in particular threw a couple of passes much too hard that ruined golden chances, but I thought apart from the penalty count (which ruined us more than our lack of tries, really) we acquitted ourselves remarkably well.

      In terms of X-Factor I think we have it in NWJMB, but since he’s more regarded as a second row in the long term, we need to start thinking of a succession plan for a post-Muller Ulster.

      On a side note, I thought Paddy Jackson had an excellent game, and hopefully answered a lot of his critics!

      • Payne has been struggling with a hernia since the 6N and before… Notice how he winces every time he kicks the ball? He’s getting an op to fix it after the BaaBaas and should be back to flying fitness after that…

        He’s not been as involved as we would have liked but can I just say how proud I am of the Ulster boys for delivering a performance like that after Twickenham last year. And congrats to the Leinster boys, took your points and played the better ball… Well done, and watch out next year!

  9. Yossarian

     /  May 27, 2013

    funny we are all left talking about the ref after what was a thrilling finale to the season.It was a great advert for the game and showed how far Ulster have come under Anscombe; compare the H-Cup thumping 12 months ago in twickenham to a one score game in the RDS.
    The issue i have with the ref was the decision to use him, it is the IRFU taking the charter http://www.irishrugby.ie/downloads/LTPD_Brochure_FINAL.pdf too far. The final stage of “retention” is admirable but people are being overlooked for Ex-Pro’s when it is not always justified.(Fogarty promotion in Leinster over RDO’s etc.)
    I have watched Lacey a few times this year and he has never impressed. The final really highlighted his shortcomings. He wasn’t necessarily biased just wrong and Ulster seemed to be on the wrong side of those calls early on particularly. He allowed the Boss steal at the base of the scrum because he didn’t want to ping Court after Ulster opting for the scrum from the penalty. Henry should have been carded for cynical kick on the ball.
    The old phrase “promoted to his level of incompetence” springs to mind. But what good up and coming ref is being overlooked to promote a former player?
    Pity it is overshadowing a fantastic game.
    p.s Leinsters rise to the top took time,rebuilding a pack-the returning Jennings/leo/Ollie le Roux all contributed to a changing culture.semi-final heartache 2006, quarter final 2007 etc. built from Celtic League title 2008 onwards

  10. Len

     /  May 27, 2013

    Also meant to add to my previous post well done Dylan Hartly. I thought it would be at least another week/2 before he got himself banned. I think he probably was abusing youngs not Barnes but he’d already been warned so he’s clearly not the sharpest tool in the box.

  11. “while Ulster were the better team over the year, Leinster were better on the day”
    Is it fair to say that Ulster had a better season than Leinster? It’s tough for me to be impartial on this as I’m a Leinster fan, but after Leinster’s horrible 3-defeats-in-a-row (Clermont twice and Ulster) in December, they have only lost once in all competitions! I’m aware that defeat was also to Ulster but still, 17 wins in 18 is hardly second-rate! In contrast, Ulster have had six defeats and a draw in the same period.

    I would have thought it was more accurate to say that Ulster dominated the first half of the season, winning 14 of the 15 matches pre-Christmas, while Leinster dominated after that with 17 from 18 (sorry Glasgow!). A look at the full Rabo table suggests that were it not for Ulster’s excellent double over Leinster, Leinster would have topped their impressive points haul of last year. As it is, they upped their try count substantially.

    Side question: there were a lot more tries this season (526) than last (469), particularly for the top three (averaged 64 this year, compared to 46 last year). Any thoughts on why (and no, Zebre aren’t to blame!)? Non-World Cup season?

    • I think Anscombe got it right when he said Ulster and Leinster are probably on par right now, how tight they were in the table pays testament to that. It isn’t easy to beat Leinster at all in the regular season, let alone twice, which I agree, is probably how Ulster edged it in the end.

      Ulster’s dip in form during/after the Six Nations was pretty horrific (especially losing to Edinburgh), and demonstrated that we need to build more depth in the squad to account for injuries/internationals, but we came back strong in the end. On the flip side of that Leinster’s start to the season was pretty shambolic as well.

      In terms of European rugby, it’s kind of hard to judge. Yes, Ulster made it further in the HEC than Leinster, but the losses to Saints at Ravenhill and to Saracens in the QF were bitter, bitter pills to swallow, whereas Leinster were able to fairly dominate the Amlin, but were poor in the pool stages (Exeter at home, failing to kick-on after securing bonus points against Scarlets and Exeter towards the end). Probably safe to say that Leinster’s knockout rugby experience still trounces Ulster, but Ulster’s form in the pool stages/regular league overall was better.

  12. Connachtexile

     /  May 27, 2013

    As a neutral watching this I thought the ref had a bad game and the Ulster fans only really booed when Lacey missed Healy hanging off Afoa’s leg. That said one has to ask what were the touch judge’s doing? If this was Lacey’s first final shouldn’t the touch judge’s have being giving him every help they could?

    With that said I think Leinster were the better team on the day and as a game of rugby it was one of the best games I’ve seen this year.

    • Afoa went absolutely *nuts* at Healy, which may or may not explain why it wasn’t picked up

      • Not Michael Bent

         /  May 27, 2013

        Well, the other reason it wasn’t “picked up” is that it was already a penalty advantage to Leinster, so even if he had spotted it, it was irrelevant (not dangerous play, just being an annoying pr1ck).

        On a related note, I think that was just about the worst I’ve ever seen Cian Healy play. Two stupid offloads, a couple of knock ons- just seemed like he was trying way too hard.

        On an unrelated note (and I say this as somebody who still think Jackson was the right pick for Scotland game), will Jackson ever get to be good enough with Pienaar inside him?

        I’m pretty sure I would look like a world class 10 with Pienaar at 9. Not sure of the solution, because i really enjoy watching Pienaar, but he takes on everything, which leaves wee Paddy as just a guy to link the scrum half and the outside backs.

        • jachill1

           /  May 27, 2013

          If thats the worst you’ve ever seen Healy play, then Healy is a truly remarkable player. Made some immense carries.

        • Amiga500

           /  May 28, 2013

          Incorrect. If he had spotted it, the advantage would have come into effect and he would have blown the penalty.

          Although…. admittedly, I am not sure if a personal foul overrides a technical one. So possibly it could have become a reversed penalty.

  13. Very well said Paddy Logan. +1 all round.

  14. termagant

     /  May 27, 2013

    Eh, maybe I’m missing some unwritten rule about commenting on this but isn’t it a bit odd that the referee for the Rabo final comes from the same country as one of the participatinhg teams?

    And before any points it out, l know Tommy hails from Monaghan. Doesn’t affect the wider point I’m making.

    • Michael

       /  May 27, 2013

      Whisper it quietly, but Ulster have had a terrible run of bad luck with refs from the south. Lacy in the final, Rolland going to the TMO after the full time whistle vs the Scarlets and the elephant in the room that is Clancy.

      • Bowe Gathers

         /  May 28, 2013

        I did particularly enjoy the round of ‘are you Clancey in disguise’ emanating from the white corner of the RDS after one very dodgy penalty.

      • Clancy is just a terrible ref. He has been very poor for Leinster too…for example at Ravenhill this year (penalty try my hole).

    • zdm

       /  May 28, 2013

      This time two seasons ago, I’d have bitten your arm off to have Ulster in the position to lose the Pro12 final and make the HC quarters.

      The fact that this comes as something of a disappointment to Ulster fans shows how far the club has come in two seasons – Ulster have outstripped the expectations of everyone, even their own management I would wager.

      Last season should have been about developing a first team and bedding in our big NIQ’s with this season being about developing a squad and a depth of local talent but then Ulster went and got to the ’11/’12 HC final and all bets were off for this season.

      Despite Ulster looking like they have dipped in form (HC final/Pro12 play-off in ’11/’12 vs. HC quarter/Pro12 final this year), there can be little doubt that Ulster have progressed as a squad – the emergence of Marshall and Jackson as internationals and Diack, Olding and Williams as solid provincial players (at least) is particularly pleasing.

      Ulster suffered more than any other Pro12 club during the international windows because even if the depth in personel is coming along nicely, we have a very shallow leadership pool – beyond Pienaar, Muller, Best and Henry, Ulster struggle for game management and that little extra 2% that this article refers to is contained in those type of players. Take Best and Henry out of the pool twice a season leaves Ulster running through treacle, add to the mix an injury to the captain and you are heaping the expectations of a province on a burnt out player who has enough to worry about without dragging his team over the finishing line every weekend.

    • ArtVandelay

       /  May 28, 2013

      Sorry mate, but in a rugby context, we’re all irish. I have seen this line pedalled in various places on facebook and in varying degrees of craziness but the idea that a ref from Munster would favour Leinster is nothing short of ludicrous. I have also seen the ref called a “homer”. Which would technically mean he favoured Ulster.

  15. Cman75

     /  May 27, 2013

    Termagant, no offence but that possibly has to be one of the stupidest comments I’ve ever read online.

    • Aoife

       /  May 28, 2013

      I think the phrase “no offence” is misused here:)

      Agree though. The implication that a Munster ref would be pro-Leinster rather than Ulster is pretty ridiculous.

      • TERMAGANT

         /  May 28, 2013

        So if the Super Blues face say Ospreys in the Rabo final next year, there should be no whinging if the ref hails from Cardiff?

        Right, ArtV, Cman and Aoife, waiting for a good answer, in your own time…

        • Jeff Bertram

           /  May 28, 2013

          Termagant, I’ll say it slowly so you can follow. Munster, Leinster, and indeed ulster are part of the irfu. John Lacey is a ref aligned with the irfu. So to say that Lacey favours one branch over another is ludicrous. Unless of course you were making it a north-south thing which is regressive and borderline offensive.

        • Aoife

           /  May 28, 2013

          Correct me if I’m wrong here Termagant: in your analogy you liken a ref from Munster (Tipperary) in charge of a Leinster v Ulster match to a ref from Cardiff in charge of Cardiff Blues v Neath Swansea Ospreys match? What’s your point? In your analogy, that is the very definition of a home ref so yes, I would expect whinging. In the match on Saturday the ref was from another province & club.

        • Please don’t respond – not deleting this as it was posted pre-warning. Only topical responses such as “fucking cheat” will be countenanced

  16. What a cracking match and what an advert for the Pro12 – and a nose thumb to the French and English leagues’ moaning. There were 3 outstanding sides in the Pro12 this year. Only one of them could win the final but – as Ronan Lyons points out via stats – the league is getting better and better. That is the headlines story of last Saturday (not the ref or people leaving Leinster). Obviously, I am delighted that Leinster finally got this bear off their backs but I am also delighted to see such competitive rugby in the Pro12.

  17. zdm

     /  May 28, 2013

    Not sure how this got posted in reply to Termagant so I thought I’d re-post here:

    This time two seasons ago, I’d have bitten your arm off to have Ulster in the position to lose the Pro12 final and make the HC quarters.

    The fact that this comes as something of a disappointment to Ulster fans shows how far the club has come in two seasons – Ulster have outstripped the expectations of everyone, even their own management I would wager.

    Last season should have been about developing a first team and bedding in our big NIQ’s with this season being about developing a squad and a depth of local talent but then Ulster went and got to the ’11/’12 HC final and all bets were off for this season.

    Despite Ulster looking like they have dipped in form (HC final/Pro12 play-off in ’11/’12 vs. HC quarter/Pro12 final this year), there can be little doubt that Ulster have progressed as a squad – the emergence of Marshall and Jackson as internationals and Diack, Olding and Williams as solid provincial players (at least) is particularly pleasing.

    Ulster suffered more than any other Pro12 club during the international windows because even if the depth in personel is coming along nicely, we have a very shallow leadership pool – beyond Pienaar, Muller, Best and Henry, Ulster struggle for game management and that little extra 2% that this article refers to is contained in those type of players. Take Best and Henry out of the pool twice a season leaves Ulster running through treacle, add to the mix an injury to the captain and you are heaping the expectations of a province on a burnt out player who has enough to worry about without dragging his team over the finishing line every weekend.

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