Great Vengeance and Furious Anger

The new Ravers’ formal opening on Friday night was an occasion to remember – a pantheon of Ulster greats and Paddy Wallace (joke) presented to the crowd, rugby through the medium of dance by an odd troop who we thought were cheerleaders, Peter Corrie leading the crowd in a rendition of Stand Danny Up For The Ulstermen Boy, and the stadium paying homage to one of its modern greats – Johann Muller, the captain who led this team from bottom-feeders to European powerhouse in his time here.

The game itself was sizzling – a raucous atmosphere which, at times, approached Thomond-Park-on-a-Saturday-night-facing-the-bleating-English levels of intensity (sacrilege, we know, Gerry, we know who the better province is), a great game and yet more red card controversy involving Ulster. Oh, and they lost (to Leinster, again), but qualified for the knock-outs.

Munster-Leinster has long since jumped the shark – when the bitter rivalry got superimposed on the green shirt, it ceased to be fun, and, although the buildup to games congratulates itself in “best rivalry in the world” terms, Ireland really needs something else to take the spotlight off it. Ulster-Munster can result in some crankiness, but doesn’t quite fit the bill as Ulster don’t seem to buy into the Munster-as-Celtic-Gods ethos, and Munster prefer to focus their ire on a more deserving foe – smartarsed city slickers Leinster. Thankfully, the Ulster-Leinster rivalry is beginning to get back to what it once was in the past, and it’s really beginning to irk Ulster that they can’t seem to beat the Blue Meanies when it matters.

When Paddy Jackson said after the game the game that he was pissed off that Ulster keep losing to Leinster, you sensed he spoke for the group – Leinster have broken their hearts for the last two seasons, and it’s getting annoying for the Northerners. It makes Ulster a mighty dangerous semi-final opponent for Leinster.

For vast tracts of Saturday night’s game – 50 minutes we think – Leinster were a man up, yet they huffed and puffed and looked far from convincing. The set piece was solid and the maul strong but lateral shuttling across the backline was again a feature – the only feature, in fact – of their attacking play. Their try was crafted out of virtually nothing – seemingly innocuous turnover ball turned into a try by you-know-who – but apart from that, Dave Kearney’s slip in the corner when trying to pick up a pass that could have been better (sound familiar) was as close as they came to scoring a try. Ian Madigan had a bit of a stinker in open play, and his chip into Wee PJ’s breadbasket wasn’t something he’ll enjoy seeing again.

Luke Pearce, Rabo debutant, refereed the game well, and it wasn’t an easy one – he got the big calls pretty much right:

  • Tom Court (red): like Pearce said to Court and Muller, he was left with little choice – Court lifted Toner above the horizontal and drove him down. A terrible end to his last appearance at Ravers, but Court can have few complaints
  • Nuck Wulliams (no card): the ref was lenient here – Williams got a bit caught up in the crowd’s post-Court frenzy and swung a dig at Rhys Ruddock. It was bird-brained and deserved a yellow, and probably would have got one if Ulster weren’t already down a man – Muller seemed relieved it was just a penalty
  • Bob (yellow): PJ had scooped up Madge’s gift-wrapped chip and was sauntering in when Bob, eschewing the tackle-the-little-guy-into-touch-low approach, tried to behead him. Jackson mostly ducked under it, and dotted the ball down anyway. You sensed if first on the scene was an angry forward rather than Tommy Bowe that it could have turned into a schemozzle, but it defused rather quickly. Bob took his yellow and acknowledged PJ on the way past. Eddie thought it was a red on TV, but it wasn’t really. There was talk of it being a penalty try, but since he scored (and the ref asked the TMO to rule first on the try being scored) that was out – and it wasn’t a penalty from the restart as the offence was commited before the score.
  • Rhys Ruddock (yellow): Jackson was again the victim here, taken out in the air by a combination of Ruddock and Sideshow Zane. Ruddock was all over the place, and looked like he had no idea how to contest the kick, but in the end it looked like Kirchner was more culpable.  It was all a bit of a mess, with Kirchner seeming to shove Ruddock into the contact area.  Someone had to go, and Ruddock got the short straw. It was adjudged yellow as PJ landed on his side. Hmmmmmm.  It appears that the crucial detail in a number of recent decisions is which body part the player lands on.  Jackson didn’t land on his neck or shoulders, so a yellow card was sufficient.  There’s a huge random element when a player is touched in the air – more so than with a spear tackle where the guilty player has more ‘control’ of things, so it’s a tricky area to navigate through.

All of which left Ulster with a nice sense of grievance to take home with them. With Ulster now guaranteed fourth place, and Leinster needing only a bonus point against hapless Embra at home to guarantee first, it’s odds-on they’ll be meeting again the week after next. It’s a pretty dangerous situation for Leinster to be in – they might be top of the log, but they haven’t entirely convinced this season. Ulster will be going down looking to strike down upon Leinster with great vengeance and furious anger, and they will have a few players back, potentially including Ruan Pienaar.

This spicy rivalry might have another twist this season yet.

Muller’s Last Stand

With Munster’s defeat to Toulon meaning no Irish team’s in the Heineken Cup final, the fizz is threatening to go out of the Irish rugby season. With that in mind, Ulster facing Leinster head-on tonight in the Pro12 couldn’t be better timed. For the third season in a row, these two Irish behemoths play each other in May with plenty at stake – we’d lots of great stuff written about how this was must-win for Ulster, but then those wasteful Ospreys threw in a careless defeat to Zebre that pretty much means Ulster only need a single point from their last two games to make the semi-finals.  Gah!  Nonetheless, they’ll be looking for the win with a view to maybe passing out Munster and getting some much needed momentum for the semi-finals.  Coming into the business end on the back of a run of consecutive defeats would be far from an ideal.

The Leinster v Munster derby that came to define Irish rugby over the last decade tends to swallow all the oxygen, but with Ulster now dining at the same table as the two southern provinces, there’s no reason why that should continue. Indeed, the gap between the three provinces is probably as tight as it’s ever been, with all three strong but none outstanding. Leinster have come off a bit from a peak of two years ago, Munster have made big gains this season, while Ulster have been consistently strong for a while now.

For Ulster their mentality all week will have been win-or-almost-bust, but now they can relax a bit.  For Leinster, a losing bonus point will be tolerable, but a win will virtually assure them of the valuable top spot going into the knockouts. The game will have added poignancy for the Ravenhill faithful, as it’s Tom Court and Johann Muller’s last match at the ground. The South African has captained the side almost since his arrival and made a huge impression in his time here; a top-drawer import who offered massive value to the team. Court is the least valued player in Irish rugby – we suspect it will be a case of we didn’t know what we had until he went.

I the sting has been taken out of the match a little with Ospreys losing, the game should still be a treat with fascinating match-ups all over the paddock. Egg’s half-empty worldview has him looking concernedly as the front rows. No Rory Best or John Afoa for Ulster; instead Rob Herring and rookie prop Andrew Warwick go up against an all-international Leinster unit. Warwick is up against one of the world’s premier looseheads in Cian Healy, so it doesn’t get any tougher. Iain Henderson is selected ahead of Dan Tuohy, and he and Muller face-off against Leinster’s Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy. Toner has played an awful lot of rugby this season, much of it of the first order, but he’s perhaps showing signs of fatigue. Can he get back his Six Nations energy levels for this monstrous game?

Ferris is once again injured, so Ulster’s backrow lines up with Wilson at 6, Henry at 7 and Nuck Wulliams at 8. Good players all, but Williams hasn’t quite had the impact he did last season, and for all the skittle-smashing runs against rubbish opposition, he still doesn’t convince against more organised teams.

Leinster go with Ruddock, Jennings and Heaslip. Jennings excelled in the final against Ulster this year, and has often been effective at neutralising Henry’s breakdown shenanigans. No doubt he’s charged with that as his primary task tonight. Heaslip had one of those ‘Tonight, I’m going to do everything’ performances last week against Treviso, and has contributed yet another season of consistently good rugby. In the modern game where injuries are the norm, and considering the role he plays for the team, his durability borders on the freakish. Ruddock is now firmly established as first-choice 6, while Kevin McLaughlin probably needs a break, and to come back refreshed.

Both sides are missing their best scrum half, and they’ll feel it. Boss and Reddan have been neck-and-neck in the past, but not this year, where Reddan has been easily the better of the two. Ruan Pienaar is a big miss for Ulster, and Paul Marshall has played badly this season. A zippy, potentially game-changing impact substitute only a couple of seasons ago, he looks to be playing in treacle of late.

The media will be happy to paint the match as Jackson v Madigan. They may even forget there are 28 other players on the pitch. Nonetheless, it’ll be fascinating. Both are vying for the role of back-up to Sexton at test level, and for Ian Madigan, it’s been a frustrating season in which he hasn’t brought his best form. Indeed, he’s become one of the most talked about players in the comment section below. This would be an opportune moment to deliver a big performance, but then we’ve been saying that all season and he’s never really got motoring.

Centre has a similarly headline-friendly look to it, as the two Giant Dwarves of Leinster pair up against the two chaps seemingly inked in as their replacements for Ireland; Luke Marshall and Jared Payne. Payne at 13 is a most interesting selection, because with Cave – one of Ulster’s best players this year –on the bench, it’s not out of necessity. An audition for something, maybe?

It’s advantage Ulster on the wings, where Tommy Bowe is Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble is one of the year’s major success stories. Zane Kirchner and Dave Kearney have international pedigree but don’t pack quite the same punch. But Leinster make up for it at full back, where they have the mighty Rob Kearney going up against the less experienced Ricky Andrew.

Leinster have done well in Ravenhill down the years, and the ground holds no fears for them, and they look to have the better form coming into the game. Given the names missing from the Ulster team, it’s a tall enough order, but don’t forget that last year they came down to the RDS with Ricky Lutton and Adam Mackin as tightheads and won, with Macklin holding up the Ulster scrum when Leinster were camped on the Ulster line in the game’s last phase. At the risk of going all Munster-meeja on it, Ulster could tap into a well of emotion and deliver a big performance, but Leinster are favourites.