Play The Music

Ulster have come a long way in a short period of time – they were rubbish for the four years from 2006-10 and it was terrible – no offence to Connacht (note: Connacht will be offended), but scrapping around for the third Irish HEC place is not where Ulster want to be, or see themselves. Since 2010, they have gradually got their act together, and improved performances have seen some increasingly fun European experiences:

  • In 2010/11, they did the double over Oooooooohh Bath, getting the ‘win on English soil’ monkey off their backs in the process. A last-minute penalty from iHumph in a mudbath in Ravers against Biarritz sealed a quarter-final place for the first time in 12 years. When they got there, they were out-boshed by Courtney Lawes, who looked a world beater, and ground down by the Saints. This was a very different Ulster team from the current one, with half the team (mostly the backs) having been replaced – Adam D’Arcy and Simon Danielli started the Saints game *shudders* as did Nevin Spence .. RIP
  • The next season, they got a stinker of a draw – Clermont Auvergne and Leicester. Missing out on a bonus point in Welford Road looked terminal, but a thumping bonus point win in Ravers turned things around. Other results meant they didn’t need anything from the Auvergne when they went there, but they nearly turned over the bananamen. Last spot in the QF rankings was good enough for a trip to the six-and-oh Brave and Faithful – its one of the pecularities of Irish rugby that Ulster always fancy themselves (and often deliver) against Munster. They won that day on the back of a spectacular Craig Gilroy try, some long-range boots from Ruan Pienaar and iHumph and loads of tackles against a Munster-side in the worst throes of the McGahanBall era. The semi-final was when Wee PJ was dumped in, and Embra were beaten, if not too impressively. In the final, a Leinster team at the zenith of the powers proved too much
  • Last year, the next step was to win a pool – and they got help in the form of a favourable draw involving Glasgae, the Saints and Castres. Win the pool they did, at a canter, but a careless home defeat after smashing Northampton away (sound familiar, Leinster fans?) cost them a home quarter-final. They had to travel to Vicarage Road Allianz Park Wembley Twickenham to face Globo Gym, and got boshed out of it up front – that loveable scamp Chris Ashton swan-dived to score the victory-sealing try on the hour mark (never mind the seven missed tackles, just enjoy the showboating)

Ulster have clearly progressed – they have scraped through as runners-up, then powered through as runners-up, then wobbled through as group winners – and qualifying for the knockouts with a week to spare is a result, particularly given this yer’s pool. And yet, a fourth away quarter final on the spin would feel stagnant – to continue their upward trend, they need to win this pool. And to do that, they need to beat Leicester.  On two occasions in this pool Ulster have shown a lack of ruthlessness, which could have expensive consequences; in allowing Leicester escape from Ravenhill with a losing bonus point, and in failing to score the fourth try in the final 20 minutes against Montpellier.  On both occasions, Ulster were dominant, but made to pay for a lack of killer instinct in the opposition’s 22, with too many visits to the red zone failing to convert into points – a failing they just can’t shake off.

Welford Road is not a place opposing teams win very often, but then again, a Leicester team like this isn’t seen very often either. This isn’t the Leicester of Johnno, Neil Back and Geordan Murphy; nor is it even the Leicester of Castro, Tom Croft and Oooooooooh Alesana Tuilagi – this is the Leicester of Neil Briggs, Sebastian de Chaves and Jamie Gibson. This Ulster team has grown increasingly chippy and together as time has gone on – the Nevin Spence experience brought them close as a group, and the perception within the team that they aren’t getting due reward at international level is driving a bitterness that, if channeled correctly (see Deccie’s first stint in charge of Munster for some classic examples of the genre) can bring a team on .. or overload it with negative emotion if handled incorrectly.

After losing two knockout games to English teams in the last three years, it’s high time Ulster delivered in a game like this – they have the team, they have the players, they have the experience, and it’s time to just do it. Munster and Leinster both won classic games in England en route to silverware, and now Ulster have a golden opportunity to follow suit and vault themselves into the real top tier of Europe. Win the match and they finish the pool with six wins and are top seeds in the quarter final draw, staring down a home quarter-final against, erm, probably Leicester.  Let’s finish with an apt quote: “You can play the notes. Someday, you might be able to play the music” – Roger Ebert.

Time for Ulster to start playing the music.

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  1. According to the permutations, a Leicester win could contribute to Leinster getting a home quarter-final. Much as I would dearly like that, I would prefer and think it better for Irish rugby, if Ulster were stuff Leicester and top their group (Leinster are big boys, an away victory at the quarter final stage shouldn’t be beyond them). Up Ulster – and Leinster, Connacht and Munster, of course!!!!!!!

    • Oooooooooooooohhhh, seems a bit unlikely, no? Wouldn’t that require some or all of Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont and Munster to lose their gimme last round fixtures against rubbish teams?

      • Patrick O'Riordan

         /  January 16, 2014

        The winner of Leicester v Ulster will be ranked ahead of Leinster whatever so this game doesn’t affect Leinster’s chances of getting a home QF.

      • Riocard Ó Tiarnaigh

         /  January 16, 2014

        Unlikely? To be sure. Still, with all the talk of narrow margins, I merely wanted to display a degree of generosity and support to our Northern Brethren. Four Green Fields Forever!!!!

  2. Yossarian

     /  January 16, 2014

    The 3 Irish sides could all easily end up on the road in the quarter finals. Chances of progressing (statistically) diminsh so. I’m sure a midst the financial negotiations with SOB and Heaslip they could do with the extra finances.

  3. Bueller

     /  January 16, 2014

    Lack of recognition at international level? They’re having a laugh.

    • Bushmills

       /  January 16, 2014

      Why don’t you tell that to Dan Tuohy ?

      How many international caps have been awarded to similar calibre locks Devin Toner, Mick McCarthy, Leo Cullen, etc?

      Or maybe we can discuss Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Paul Marshall?

      Nobody in Ulster thinks their players are better that their rivals at other provinces, but they get limited opportunities am international level.

      How about the Craig Gilroy example? Gets a couple of opportunities and shines. As does Simon Zebo, as does Dave Kearney. Who remains in the zeitgeist and who doesn’t? Where’s the follow up to build on his experience at the highest level given the age profile and a long term view to world cups?

      • Paddy

         /  January 16, 2014

        You have a point with Tuohy but he comes across sometimes as a bit stupid(peno wise)

        Paul Marshall isn’t particularly better or different than Reddan and (to my eyes) hasn’t been as good as he was in 11/12.

        Luke Marshall would have way more caps(really shouldn’t have the Italy one) had he not got concussed in last years 6n.

        Darren Cave………never really impressed me in a big game for Ulster. Seems to disappear. But I think he did have a case back when the Earls for 13 bandwagon was rolling.

        Timble has plenty of caps and has never convinced as an test winger IMHO.

        Gilroy was injured for the AIs and he’s injured at the moment AFAIK. Plus you have to give credit to the guys who stepped in and impressed in his absence. Also a mention for Luke Fitz(comparable to Trimble to some extent) who looks back to his best.

        I don’t completely disagree with you, but in the past your players more often than not lost out to players playing for better teams. They need to start showing they can bring home silverware.

        • Bowe Gathers

           /  January 16, 2014

          Tuohy has been playing out of his skin this weather. Undroppable, we let Muller leave the pitch instead of him – flying into tackles and beaut soft hands when required. He won’t be capped in a real competitive Irish fixture in a million years.

          Same with Henry for the last two seasons: undroppable for Ulster, untouchable for Ireland. And don’t get me started on Cave, Marshall, Fitz and Black – each quantifiably better as a replacement than those in and around the autumn international squad.

          I’m aware of my own bias, but it happens to us all the time: it’s a conshhhhhhpirashy to say the least. Nearly every marginal call goes against Ulster in the international setup, and it’s been that way for a while. Harrumph.

          • Jojo

             /  January 17, 2014

            I have a sneaky suspicion that Schmidt rates Henry . I think he will and should always be in the mix for Ireland

          • He’s devised specific gameplans for Henry when at Leinster – we think he’s nailed on for the team in SOB’s absence, and is a real contender for the XV even when SOB fit (presumably at the expense of POM)

          • Paddy

             /  January 17, 2014

            I’d agree about Henry. I think he was very unlucky not to feature more in the AIs after he got the injury. I think it’ll be a swap between him and POM for the bench spot, from game to game.

      • Bueller

         /  January 16, 2014

        Gilroy never fell out of favour / zeitgeist…he got injured. Paul Marshall cant get his game at his province so how could an international coach pick him? Trimble has 50 caps, which is very impressive for a ‘good enough’ player.

        Every fully fit Irish qualified starting Ulster player just got picked in the Irish squad along with a few subs.

        Dan Tuohy is a conundrum as he has all the attributes but I have never seen him put in a commanding performance. Toner is 10 foot tall so he has an obvious advantage over nearly every row in world rugby, McCarthy was arguably our player of the November internationals 2 seasons ago and Cullen has spent the last half decade captaining the best side in Europe…Tuohy has done?

        Darren Cave…maybe…but I sincerely doubt he is up to it at international level. Neither was Earls but he had far more potential and had impressed massively as a centre for Ireland A as a 21 year old….Darren Cave is yet to impress as a Wolfhound.

        If you constantly feel the need to be slighted then have at it but it’s pretty unfounded. Every province has players on the border who get left out for whatever reason – it doesn’t always warrant complaint and bitterness.

        I was in Thomond Park when Ulster won the quarter final and all the Ulster fans (within my earshot at least) could do throughout and after the game (eventhough they won fairly, based on penalty count) was complain about the ref incessantly. Don’t get me wrong they were still good banter but the persecution complex was insufferable!

        • In a way it doesn’t really matter what we think, the reality is that the Ulster players think it – Cave let the cat out of the bag recently, and other players have said similar off the record.

          Something we plan to write about closer to the 6N is that with Ulster players we often find ourselves in the situation of highlighting what they *can’t* do – Tuohy doesn’t mould a game the way POC does, Cave can’t step, Marshall is too inconsistent, whatever; and we never have conversations like Tuohy’s handling is far better than any other second row in the international frame, Cave is rock solid in defence, Marshall is a high-impact bench option.

          • Bushmills

             /  January 16, 2014

            Thanks Whiff. Will look forward to that.

            How about a piece on Liam Tolland on RTE radio’s “Off the Ball”?

            As a whole I love this program and am eager to listen to the likes of Wood, Thornley, Quinlan, Jackman, O’Sullivan share their thoughts on the professional game.

            However, did anyone else listen to Tolland,s absurd rant on the “true value” of SOB to the IRFU based on… wait for it… The NFL? He specifically cited Peyton Manning as a basis for comparison! Comic/delusional gold.

          • Cave is also the only OC option we have whose short passing game is even vaguely comparable to BOD’s (until Geroid qualifies). Not as flash, but still works wonders for Ulster.

            Tuohy also probably is our best ball-carrying lock (which obviously works well with the handling) – though he’s not in the Healy/SOB league, by any means, but (not to buzz this old saw again for its own sake) it’s all about balance, and if SOB’s absence leads to Henry at 7 in the Six Nations, does that not at least tilt the balance towards Tuohy as POC’s partner to some degree? Whether you then decide it does so enough for him to get the shirt (no, IMO, as it happens) is another question, but there’s a conversation to be had.

        • Amiga500

           /  January 16, 2014

          Dan Tuohy largely won us the game in Montpellier. He was immense. If doing it against that pack in France, who were at that point unbeaten on their own ground, isn’t enough for at least a look-in, I don’t know what is.

  4. Hansie Macdermot

     /  January 16, 2014

    I have few doubts that Ulster can create sufficient chances to win on Saturday.
    My worry is that they cannot suddenly eliminate the too many errors that are a
    feature of their recent games.
    Losing and an away quarter final is not a complete kiss of death, but a trip to Clermont
    runs pretty close.
    Avoid qualifying positions 7 & 8 and the task becomes slightly easier.

    See that SOB has decided to remain in Ireland – great news – so much for the posters
    on Planet Rugby who predicted that Sexton’s move was the start of a flood.

  5. zdm

     /  January 16, 2014

    Do Ulster currently make too many unforced errors to win the HC? Yes
    Will this error rate cost them the match against Leicester? No

    In the not-so-distant past, Deccie poorly made a valid point (ironically, at the time, he was justifying not picking in-form Ulster players for the Ireland squad) when he said that international rugby is a step up from Provincial rugby. I’d personally add a qualifying argument that the semis and finals of the HC are of international standard but the groups and half of the quarters are an increment below the standard of the Autumn Internationals or the 6N for example.

    With that said, there are only a few opponents in the HC with the capability to i) punish all of Ulsters errors and ii) prevent Ulster from atoning for it by out-scoring them when they don’t cock it up. I’d list Leinster, Clermont and Toulon plus Munster and Sarries if they are on-song.

    Ulster are very close to making an expansive game gel with a mobile, aggressive defence and for the moment, a Kevin Keegan-esque approach to winning games by being a bit lax at the back in order to score more points is seeing them through. I believe it is enough to see them past a non-vintage Tigers outfit but they will need to sharpen up for the knock-outs in order to progress.

    • The errors are a pain, to a point.

      However, our principal style – straight running using the width of the pitch, lots of passing, and lots of that ambitious stuff on the gainline – invites a lot more errors than something more conservative. To a large degree the rewards (being a dangerous side capable of scoring tries against good opposition) outweigh the negatives (higher-than-desired error count).

      Which is not to say I don’t often roll my eyes when Luke Marshall spills another one having taken the ball at a full spring about a metre from some opposition forwards before trying to get his hands through the imminent tackle and hang the ball up behind, almost like he’s ignoring the massive hit he will take as part of said process.

    • Ferg

       /  January 17, 2014

      “A bit lax at the back”? Ulster have the best defensive record in the Heineken Cup & the second best in the Pro 12… I’ll admit the two tries against Montpellier were pretty loose and Munster did a number on us with their rolling maul. On the Munster scores you have to say fair play to them, we might have stopped them but there would have been lads in the sin bin for sure.

  6. Fairly sanguine about this week, in terms of qualification. I’m no more scared about an away QF than I would be blasé about one at home. We’ve gotten over the hurdle of winning games against the big sides and both England and France and, while we wouldn’t travel anywhere as favourites, I wouldn’t write us off (never mind it being the HEC’s year of the away teams) even if this has been a savage season for injuries at Ravenhill (Court, Best, Afoa, Muller, Henderson, Ferris, Henry, Williams have all seen significant time on the sidelines, which might be our best pack, while Wilson had some issues, Olding’s crocked, Bowe, Gilroy…).

    The real reason I want to win is because I want to win this game, as an end in itself. We’ve been below par for a month or so now, and it’s very important that slump comes to an end.

    On the international selection thing… this isn’t the early ’90s any more. While some players might have a legitimate grievance about lack of opportunity (Cave and Tuohy, and that’s probably it, IMO) they, and some of the others who might have some sort of case, were all faced with other options who could also make their own case for selection.

    We can win this year’s HEC. We probably won’t. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, anyway.

  7. Riocard Ó Tiarnaigh

     /  January 16, 2014

    Re Cave not getting his chance: would that Deccie had played him in the third test in NZ in 2011, instead of parachuting Paddy Wallace in off a beach in Portugal; things might happened somewhat differently….

  8. Yossarian

     /  January 17, 2014

    The Backbone of Ulsters success comes from (currently)not qualified players in key positions. If Afoa,Muller,Williams,Piennar and Payne were eligible they would all be involved.
    Claiming Black is unlucky not to feature when he has never made a dent in Afoa’s right to selection seems blinkered. likewise Marsahal at 9. The only player who i think is unlucky to miss out is Tuohy and i think with SOB out he might come more into the reckoning as a ball carrier is needed.
    Trimble too reckless in defence(searching for intercepts/not trusting inside men-goes man and ball) Cave isn’t physical enough-wonderful passer but lacks out and out gas and power to defend the channel well enough.
    After that i don’t think the fans can really gripe, don’t mind the players using it for motivation but the fans need a dose of realism on these matters.

    • zdm

       /  January 17, 2014

      Sorry Yossarian but the Indo-rugby brick bat that Ulster are too reliant on their foreign stars just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny any longer.

      First off, Payne has been a project player from the day Ulster signed him so calling him a foreign star is just for the convenience of the argument.

      Afoa has made 9 appearances for Ulster this season; Callum Black 15
      Muller has 11, Tuohy 14
      Wilson has double the number of appearances as Williams
      Paddy Jackson and Paul Marshall have both played in more games than Ruan Pienaar.

      Leinsters most capped player this season? Jimmy Goperth.
      Connachts joint highest? Parks, Ay You and Marimon
      Munsters 3 highest cap earners last year? Botha, Keatley and Laulala.

      • labrecha1

         /  January 17, 2014

        Payne is foreign until nationalised.

        • zdm

           /  January 17, 2014

          There’s not really any way for me to respond to that other than to say that in the eyes of the IRFU, he is not a foreign (i.e. non-Irish-qualified) player.

    • Ferg

       /  January 17, 2014

      Black is a LH though so Afoa has nothing to do with it, his competition is Tom Court who he has just displaced for the Leicester game.

      The feeling of being on the wrong end of Ireland calls goes way back though but it all started with Humphreys – Rog for me personally. Tommy Bowe couldn’t get into the Ireland team until he moved to the Ospreys, Isaac Boss when he moved to Leinster.. Had some of our players been at Leinster or Munster I have no doubt they would have more caps, just ask any Connacht fan!

  9. Yossarian

     /  January 18, 2014

    From the point of view of Irish selection he is foreign.that is my point. I find it hard to believe you sincerely think ulster would be as good a side minus afoa,muller,piennear,Williams.i have no issue with ulster having an overseas contingent,leinster and Munster both had theirs to get over the Heineken cup line. My point is you can’t gripe about lower representation in an Irish squad when there are 5 in your starting lineup who can not be picked. Leinster have gopperth and kirchner(who subbed last night) 21 others eligible for a call up.

    • zdm

       /  January 18, 2014

      That isn’t what’s happening though, the stats above show that those 5 players aren’t keeping their Irish counterparts out of the Ulster squad, the Ulster players ARE getting game time and they ARE getting it in big games.

      For example, Dan Tuohy has played the same number of games as Toner and McCarthy and if Muller is fit, Tuohy still plays. He is first choice in his position and has played in a HC final so he has the game time, skill and experience of big matches.
      If Cullen is fit, Leinster choose between McCarthy and Toner so they aren’t first choice, in effect, one of them is being kept out by a player who isn’t available for the Irish team but both have featured more heavily than Tuohy. Jack McGrath is “kept out” of the Leinster squad by Cian Healey if both are fit but McGrath got a crack of the whip for Ireland – as he deserved to.

      Ulster fans aren’t complaining about not having a proportional amount of representation in the squad, they are complaining about the fact that in marginal decisions, or even calls where the balance seems slightly in favour of the Ulster player, the call goes away from the Northerner. Its not a new phenomenon either – how long did it take Ferris to get a run in the Ireland team?

  10. toro toro

     /  January 18, 2014

    Ferris was first capped at the ripe old age of 21, 13 months after his Ulster debut. He was injured for the following 6 Nations, but first choice the following year. Not a particularly persuasive example.

    Cullen is fit, but started on the bench yesterday, behind McCarthy and Toner.

    And Tuohy is the one Ulster player you’ve mentioned who supports your claim. Callum Black may have played a lot, but is nowhere near being the big-game starter. Ditto Wilson, ditto Marshall. To put those numbers in perspective Brendan Macken has made 11 appearances for Leinster this year which is four more than O’Driscoll; nobody in their right mind imagines that makes him an international.

    And the point about Payne, for all that yes, he’s a project player, is that he’s another guy not currently available for Irish squads, and so another reason why Ulster’s current representation in such squads is comparatively, but not disproportionately, low.

    • zdm

       /  January 19, 2014

      Ferris was first capped in the 2005/2006 season against the Pacific Islanders but the first time he started two games in a row against tier 1 sides was the 2009 Six Nations so I think the point about not getting a run in the team stands.

      With regard to the number of appearances Black has made, that was to refute the notion that Ulster’s home grown stars aren’t getting a look-in because of the presence of overseas players, not to say that the guy with the most caps starts.

      Finally, with regards to Jared Payne, which Irish player is he keeping out of the squad? Ricky Andrew or Peter Nelson?

      The stock reasons given for not selecting Ulster players just don’t hold up to even the most superficial scrutiny.

      I personally think it simply comes down to the point that Graham Rowntree made regarding the selection of Hartley ahead of Best for the Lions – with no Ulster coaches in the Ireland “brain trust”, it is inevitable that they lose out on the close calls – better the known unknown than the unknown unknown when it comes to giving out a debut.

      • toro toro

         /  January 20, 2014


        He was first capped in November 2006, less than a year after his Ulster debut. Still 21, he was behind *Ulster’s* Neil Best in the rankings for the 2007 6N, but got back-to-back caps in the 2007 games against Argentina. He made the World Cup squad, but didn’t play, got two more caps in 2007 (at 22), and has basically been picked for every game he was fit for since then (he missed the entire 2008 6N through injury). The idea that he has been denied a run in the team does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

        Regarding Black, the mere fact that he has been getting a look-in does not mean he is anywhere near international level. Just like Macken. So he doesn’t count towards this mythical list of hard-done-by Ulstermen who aren’t being given a fair shot by the national side.

        Regarding Payne, I don’t know if you’re just wilfully misunderstanding this or what. SInce he is not eligible to be picked in Irish squads, like Ulsters four other most influential players, it should not surprise anybody that Ulster – despite being every bit as good as Leinster and Munster – have a lower representation in Irish squads. In his case, everybody knows he’s going straight into the squad the moment he’s allowed, so it’s again hard to see this as a case of Ulster players not getting a fair crack of the whip.

        So again, Tuohy and maybe Cave aside, which Ulster players aren’t getting a shot? The idea that Ferris didn’t is laughable, as is the idea that Black is due one. The other player you’ve discussed will get one the isntant he’s eligible.

  11. toro toro

     /  January 18, 2014

    (re Macken; that should have said “nobody in their right mind imagines that makes him a contender for the international side.”)

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