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.

Missing Muller

Ulster might have reached the HEC knock-out stages for a third successive year, but there was a rather anti-climactic feel to their qualification due to the lack of a home quarter-final, and the last two underwhelming performances at Ravers will have gone a long way towards it. They looked nailed-on for a home QF after round three, and it wasn’t supposed to be this way after that memorable win in Northampton.

After the disappointing loss in the return fixture with the Saints came the failure to get a bonus point at home to Glasgae. Now that might sound presumptuous, but Ulster should have scored four tries – and failure to do so put them behind Saracens (and Toulon) in the final rankings. The dirty win in Castres was about as good as they were going to get, and winning games in France is a tough habit to get into – so that’s a plus, but the Glasgow game was a disappointment.

They were let down by a curious helter-skelter panicky second quarter when they threw the ball around like confetti in minging conditions instead of sticking it up the jumper and trying to control it better, then a third quarter where they completely switched off. It took a few changes in the pack and the introduction of Paul Marshall to snap them back into gear – and two tries promptly followed.

Although Ulster might be able to replicate some of the lineout work of Johann Muller with a combination of NWJMB and Robbie Diack, they were unable to replace the captaincy skills and leadership qualities Muller brings to the table. There is no way the former Springbok would have allowed Ulster to take the ball out of the tight in the second quarter when in the Glasgae 22.

The absence of Muller was compounded by the ongoing unavailability of Fez and injury to Dan Tuohy – Ulster lost 3 cornerstones of their pack and couldn’t replace their influence. Chris Henry had a good game and was, as usual, the lynchpin of Ulster, but Rory Best and John Afoa were quiet – too quiet. The failure to get a grip on the game until late on was ultimately their undoing – this was an average Glasgae side and, conditions allowing, Ulster needed to slap them down early and then milk tries. And they couldn’t do it.

A comparison of the three games where Muller started and the three he didn’t are revealing:

  • Muller starts: Played 3 (2 away, 1 home), Points difference 14-0, Try difference 9-2
  • Muller doesn’t start: Played 3 (1 away, 2 home), Points difference 9-5, Try difference 3-2

Of course, Ulster had many more injuries than just Muller, but the shaky lineout and general frenzy indicate that Muller was missed more than most.

Thankfully for Ulster, the HEC knock-out stages are somewhat of a new tournament, and one can expect them to have a full selection by then (injuries will be managed with an early-April start in mind) with the exception of Tommy Bowe.

If Saracens switch the game to Wembley or Twickers or some other giant stadium, it will make the task easier, but Ulster have a mountain to climb that they have helped make themselves.