The Clermont of Ireland

Ulster’s long wait for a trophy continues, after another heart-breaking loss – this time to Glasgae in Scotstoun. Ulster have made it a bit of a speciality to lose knockout matches in ever more imaginative fashion, and this one was the worst yet. The 2013 Pro12 final was largely acknowledged as pretty unlucky – Leinster were the better team on the day (and, admittedly, one of the best teams in Europe), and their experience told. Still, Ulster didn’t help themselves then, showing a distinct lack of composure when it mattered .. something that sounds familiar now.

Last year, they stepped out to an absolutely boiling Ravers … and managed to get Jared Payne sent off after 4 minutes. They nearly won, but then again – they didn’t. We, unlike most of Ireland, thought it was a red card, but whatever you think about that – Ulster lost largely through losing a man so early.

This year, after 70 minutes, the game was locked down. Ulster, though only 5 points ahead on the scoreboard, were well on top all over the field – Glasgow were desperate and one more score and it was over. What happened?

  • Dumb Penalties: ah yes, the familiar Irish refrain – someone else’s fault. Gerry today demanded that Clancy be held to account for giving a penalty to Glasgow for Ricky Lutton high-arming Matawalu. He also claimed Owens would not have given the penalty, which is rubbish. Sure, Matawalu embarrassed himself and Glasgow by going down like an Italian in the box, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a penalty. It was, and it was so incredibly stupid at a critical stage of the game, that it still infuriates us now. And its funny – Gerry wasn’t demanding that Garces be held to account for a lopsided outcome in his favourite statistic – the penalty count – when Leinster played Bath .. would that have anything to do with the Irish team being favoured?
  • Composure: even when Glasgow did score, Ulster had 4 minutes to fashion an opportunity. Four minutes – a lifetime for the best teams. Even for above average ones – France in 2007 in Croker, Ireland in 2009 got a drop goal, Munster on countless occasions, BNZ against us on numerous recent occasions. Ulster not only didn’t get a sniff, but they barely got the ball back – they approached the task with nothing that felt like dead-eyes cold-blooded focus, more of a harum-scarum hope-for-the-best mentality. They looked defeated. Even when Glasgow insanely went for a 30% penalty kick with time already up, and inevitably gave Ulster one final, undeserved, chance – you never sensed a score was on.

The same old problems over again. You have to compare this Ulster team does pressure to how the most recent great Irish provincial side would have reacted – Joe Schmidt’s Leinster team. That team was festooned with intelligent, streetwise, shrewd and assured players – DJ Church, Ross, Cullen, Hines/Thorn, O’Brien, Heaslip, Sexton, BOD, Dorce, Nacewa, Kearney all fit that description. And they had the best coach around , who got those players to that stage. At various points early in their career, Healy and SOB were both indisciplined penalty machines – but both had got that out of their systems by that stage.

Unlike, say, Iain Henderson – NWJMB is a force of nature and one of Ulster’s best players, but he gives away too many penalties. We are pretty sure he will lose that from his game – he’s pretty laid back and intelligent, but he is still learning his trade. Dan Tuohy is another man who never seems to be able to shake off the ability to get on referee’s wrong side.  Roger Wilson is a player who is great at running into things, but lacks composure at crucial moments – you’d never mix him up with someone like Heaslip, despite what Darren Cave thinks.

Elsewhere in the Ulster pack, Besty and Henry have a huge amount of nous, brains and the ability to think clearly under pressure .. but there aren’t many other names that jump out at you from the forwards as ones you’d want on your teamsheet during squeaky bum time. Even Pienaar doesn’t have the best record when the heat is on. Ulster have the same problems they had two years ago, and they have lots of work to do this summer. Until Ulster prove otherwise, they are the Clermont of Ireland – likeable, play great rugby, but crumble under pressure.




  1. Rava

     /  May 27, 2015

    A bit of a cheap shot article. Not a lot to see here.

    • Written by an angry Ulsterman. Someone smarter than us said that those who do no learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

      Ulster can’t just write this off as “just another narrow loss”

  2. Just a depressing game to watch. At around the hour mark I think I started thinking the inevitable, and I now know what it feels like to be a Packers fan watching the NFC championship where we had a decent lead but a lingering expectation that we’d fuck it up.

    The worst thing was the first half was fantastic. Ulster were winning collisions, regularly making the right decisions and stretching Glasgow by putting the ball through the hands. Henry’s try was absolutely sumptuous. And Glasgow had lost two key players in the pack to boot!

    And then that scrum happened.

    Pretty much half time, we’ve just very nearly scored another try and it’s our scrum. I don’t care who the referee is, in that sort of situation you do. not. give. them. a. reason. to. ping. you. And the worst thing is that you could see the decline in Ulster’s performance straight from there.

    The second half starts with both Ludik AND Pienaar fire kicks out on the full. The cowboy would have been laughing all the way back in Auckland (or Cardiff, I guess?). All of the sudden we’re obsessed with territory and keeping Glasgow pinned back and doing exactly what pretty much everyone had been saying in the build up that we shouldn’t do: Give Matawalu space.

    I’m not even going to talk about the rest of the match because most others have covered it to death, other than the fact that Lutton shouldn’t have gone for that lariat in the first place, and that Lewis Stevenson more than covered ably for Big Frank.

    The thing that annoyed me the most, and points to a huge reason why we didn’t win in my opinion, was the fact that we used one player off the bench before we fell behind


    At 70 minutes.

    If nothing else it shows that Ulster still don’t have faith in players outside their starting XV to get the job done in big games. The problem with that thinking is that those players (with respect to Clive Ross, he’s had tons of game time to be fair) have hardly had a chance to prove themselves this season. While we have a modicum of “depth”, there isn’t really a competition for places currently. If you asked an Ulsterman to pick a squad to win games you’d most likely hear the same XV, barring selections at 12, 13 and 15.

    Another problem is that we don’t have the confidence to twist the knife when we’re ahead. Could you imagine if we had brought McCloskey on at 60 minutes after most of the Glasgow pack had already been on for a good part of the match?

    • Rava

       /  May 27, 2015

      A much better summation for me. The bench wasn’t THAT bad. Still can’t believe we won’t be on the pitch on Saturday.

    • Billy

       /  May 27, 2015

      Agreed. Good points well made. They just stopped trying to play rugby and decided to contain Glasgow and I think the use of the bench reflected it. I thought the game was crying out for McCloskey for some fresh impetus.

    • Billy

       /  May 27, 2015

      Out of interest, who would you like to see at 12, 13 and 15? I like Cave as a 12 I have to say (shocking second half pass aside) and I think Payne is a very robust, sensible presence alongside him… Ludik has surprised on the upside for me this year.

      • Amiga500

         /  May 27, 2015

        12. McCloskey
        13. Cave/Olding
        15. Payne

        No brainer really.

        • Billy

           /  May 27, 2015

          That seems solid. Although there is no chance of Payne being played at 15 if he’s 13 for Ireland… Cave offers a little more football at 12 than McCloskey right now. Slightly controversial one but I reckon Olding lacks the athleticism to become a top class centre despite his great skills and feet – would love to be wrong on that. Crazy that Luke Marshall doesn’t even get a mention – ridiculous depth at centre. Imagine Chris Farrell came home too.

      • 12. Olding
        13. McCloskey
        15. Payne (but really Ludik/Nelson until Piutau shows up)

        As you said it’s unlikely Payne will get much/any gametime at 15, but the fact is you could name a stupid number of combinations (especially if you include Piutau).

        Ludik has been Ulster’s unsung hero, he hasn’t done anything flash but he rarely makes mistakes and consistently makes ground.

        • Louis the leg drive Ludik as Andrew Trimble memorably called him. He seems one tough hombre.

    • In most games the opposition have a purple patch. Is the composure of a coach or team of coaches illustrated by how well they manage this transition with the bench? For me the use of the bench over the whole season has rarely managed purple patches well.

  3. Fair enough. It says a lot as a long-time Ulster supporter that I was expecting them to lose it in the last five minutes if they couldn’t pull away from Glasgow. Hoping against hope that they wouldn’t, of course, but still. The point about composure is a good one – they never looked like scoring once Glasgow got their noses in front. Perhaps Kiss might be able to impart some of the Schmidt-like steeliness once he comes on board? Either way, I’d argue that the end-of-season performances showed promising signs, especially when given the shambles in which the season began…

    • I’m not so sure.

      We should have beaten Munster but for some really poorly executed strike moves and Henderson being a penalty machine (whether or not the card was rescinded, he gave Nigel enough reason to think to go for a card).

      Leinster have been abject enough that beating them this season isn’t exactly an achievement, especially when the Dragons did the double on them. Speaking of the Dragons…

      Losing away to the Dragons and Zebre (ZEBRE), no matter the circumstances, was unforgiveable, and cost us a home semi-final.

      • True, but the team is at least now capable of executing Doak’s running game without dropping the ball every five seconds. So while there are still too many fumbles for comfort, the situation has improved. Composure, as stated above, is going to be key if they want to move on next season.

        • Yeah it’s a good point, at least we are starting to cross the whitewash instead of having a brainfart as soon as we enter the opposition red zone. As I said in my main comment above though, I think a more important aspect is going to be developing those skills across the squad. We’re far too dependent on players like Pienaar, and a lot of backups only get meaningful gametime in fits and starts.

          • Amiga500

             /  May 27, 2015

            We are dependent on Pienaar because Marshall, for all his scrappy-doo enthusiasm, cannot pass on anything like a consistent basis and cannot make the right decisions on a regular basis.

            Heaney never got 3 games in a row to try to see if he was any better. Neither did Porter. Neither did Shanahan.

            I think dHumph erred badly in giving weeP a new contract.

        • Doaks running game is too easily defended and he has a very predictable kicking strategy. That is why despite all the possession they never accumulated scores.

      • The lack of discipline over the whole season, an accurate kicking out of hand game, defense from the squad players, no real competition among the forwards for places. The longer it takes for Les Kiss to get in situ the more the squad reverts to the default amateurism that is Shane Logan and Neil Doaks version of Ulster rugby.

  4. Amiga500

     /  May 27, 2015

    “Besty and Henry have a huge amount of nous, brains and the ability to think clearly under pressure”

    I would wholly disagree. Both RB and CH give up too many penalties in big games, usually due to over-eagerness – since they don’t know better by now, I’m not expecting them to ever know better. RB also always has at least one or two dodgy throws in him a game.

    • Billy

       /  May 27, 2015

      One thing I would love to eradicate is the preconception among fans than any issues at the lineout are purely down to the hooker. There are so many factors at play, not least the quality of the call, the lift, the movement and how the opposition react to all of these. Too many times I’ve heard people complain about Best (and hookers in general) when in fact other factors were to blame. Best can get the wobbles, most notably on the most recent Lions tour, but this seems to be used to presuppose that any lineout issues are down to his throwing…

      • Amiga500

         /  May 27, 2015

        If the 2nd row is at the peak of his jump and the ball is still too high then it is an overthrow.

        He’ll virtually always throw a couple of dodgy darts a game. It happens. Making excuses for him just ‘cos he is a good man and a local doesn’t do him or the team any favours.

        As an aside I also don’t think Hookers and 2nd rows in general should be captains if they are leaders but not generals. Too often when a penalty is awarded the thought process is “Kick ‘er to the corner and I’ll make the perfect throw and lead by example” or “Kick ‘er to the corner and I’ll make the perfect catch and lead by example”…
        … when in both situations they should have kicked for 3 points.

        Rory Best is a great leader. But not a general. Same with Chris Henry. Not sure who on our team right now is general material. There are guys who know how to manage the game, but wouldn’t represent the team well to the referee. Probably the best bet is Jackson, but he’s a bit young and has enough on his plate without the burden of captaincy [and there is also the element of “I’ll make the perfect kick at goal” when it should be turned down due to the 4 missed kicks beforehand].

        • Billy

           /  May 27, 2015

          Fair point. Similarly I remember POC saying in an interview that he used to call too much ball on himself early in his career. My point is more that a bad lift or a jumper missing his mark can make a perfect throw look like an overthrow – happens all the time.

        • Stephen

           /  May 28, 2015

          Van der Merwe is the best prospective captain on the pitch. Question is, will anyone have the stones to take the captaincy off Rory again?

    • All players make mistakes. However between Doaks game plan, the players persistent indiscipline and Shane Logan’s personnel decisions. Les Kiss better have his Superman costume at the ready. He is going to need it.

  5. Roundy

     /  May 27, 2015

    Ulster need a couple of quality players before they start winning trophies on any regular basis. The squad depth is a factor which is presumably why subs werent used earlier. They are also missing a ‘cute hoor’ type of player. Someone like Leo Cullen, Anthony Foley etc. a groundhog type of menace. Great to have along side you but a bitch to play against. Muller was probably the last one they had. Henderson will probably become one but he is too eager (obvious) at the moment and Best gets caught too often. Against Glasgow they seemed to run out of steam. They contained the best side in the Pro12 this season for almost 80 minutes but the gaps began to appear when the pressure was ramped up. The ball needed to be slowed up a bit without giving easy penalties.

  6. Mike

     /  May 27, 2015

    The whole Ulster setup looks like the good old boys club at times.

    Every time you listen to the radio or watch the TV the commentator and studio guests are players agents. The ‘team manager’ (was that job even advertised) is an ex player and agent and all the coaching team are ex players. Very hard to see us ever getting to the top until there is proper merit based appointments.

    I really hope Kiss is his own man, but given he has been at training on and off for the last 5 years I have my doubts.

    • Unashamed Cronyism. Which could be justified if Ulster had been successful but their “Proud Ulstermen” management culture who are unproven in professional rugby terms are at best dated and now at worst holding the development of Ulster rugby back. Whether or not Les Kiss can affect real change seems like a huge task.

    • aird02

       /  May 27, 2015

      And it is so different in Munster and Leinster where coaches and team managers are so different. Leo and Anthony in situ with explayers in management roles not croynism !! I presume. The Team managers job was advertised but admittedly the requirements for the job seemed to ideal for the incumbent not a too uncommon a practice every where.

  7. Ireland's Answer (allthingsrugby1)

     /  May 27, 2015

    Last season I had a series of tweets about how pathetic Ulster’s record was in knock out games particularly v Leinster over the last 5 years and ye defended them till death!

    • I dunno, for a good while ulster were just plain outgunned against leinster. They would’ve had to be playing well above themselves to win. Like saying ulster choked in the European final against leinster is a bit harsh, as whiff said they just got well beaten by the better team at the time. Some of their defeats since then were epic games, not clermont style implosions. I don’t really think the sarries/Payne game was a choke either per se-they fought tooth and nail. Going to thomond and winning a quarter final is a more than reasonably decent achievement even if it is becoming a bit of an outlier and a good while ago now. It’s hard to win!

      I would agree though that the weekend past was terrible and did indeed feel like a bit of a mental issue. Padraig Harrington spoke about not thinking of the consequences of winning (not exactly the power of positive thinking, eh?) whilst playing the final round of his open victories and it looked like ulster fell into that trap a bit. They were clearly better on the night and contrived to not put Glasgow out of their misery. Cave’s pass to Payne was perhaps tired but (with a heavy heart) I would find it hard to excuse it to be honest and as mentioned above I can’t for the life of me understand why McCloskey wasn’t brought on for something different, considerably sooner.

      It’s been a funny, funny year and though they’ve finished up far better than looked likely after treviso away, last week was a massive chance lost. Not sure who feels more sick after the weekend – ulster or connacht?

      • Cave’s handling under pressure lets him down quite regularly unfortunately. This season especially I’ve seen him cut a beautiful line and then throw a wild offload that would never stick in 7s, nevermind 15s.

        I’d say Ulster feel more sick, although Connacht are probably much the angrier given that even BT Sport were backing them up over that penalty.

        • D6W

           /  May 28, 2015

          Feel sorry for Ulster, would have been nice to have an all Irish final in Ravenhill. That said, it seems all the stars are aligning for them next season and beyond. A really impressive list of outside backs that will cause selection headaches, a pack with a fair few internationals, a team with a balance between seasoned internationals and emerging talent, and.a proven coach to come in who should be able to do something about the problems mentioned above.

          Totally gutted for Connacht, the penalty was wrong, but it was the draw with Cardiff and the loss to Edinburgh at the sportsground that did for their season. Looking at their results though, they had a terrific season. It was funny to see Pat reciting the stats after game, as if he was making the case to retain him. Is there any doubt Connacht won’t lock him down for as long as they can?

          • Proven coach is the most important point there. The proven coach is going into a management environment where everybody else will be entirely unproven in professional rugby. Particularly with a boss whose knowledge of professional rugby has been seriously exposed since the loss of David Humphrey’s. Will he have what it takes to make the difficult decisions? There are a few fans out there who are looking forward to the difficult decisions.

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