Costly Ulster errors leave McLaughlin looking for answers
BRIAN McLaughlin's five-word summary at the end of Ulster's titanic clash with Leicester Tigers said it all. "It was very, very disappointing," the Ulster coach admitted.
That was not a criticism of his team's Herculean efforts, or of his players' commitment. Like everyone in the 21,473-strong crowd, he knew they had given their all.
Instead, his disappointment stemmed from the fact that Ulster were leaving with nothing to show for their efforts and now face a daunting challenge if they are to get out of Pool 4 given that they still have to go to Aironi and Clermont.
There were many positives, a fact McLaughlin underlined by saying: "Our line-out was excellent and once we got the scrum sorted out it went not too badly. It wasn't perfect, but it went pretty well."
But his frustration came from knowing that they should have left Welford Road with at least one point and might even have been going home with four.
"Last year in Europe it was our set-piece that let us down. Tonight it was our inability to hold onto the rugby ball that has cost us dear," he said.
"Small errors, handling errors, missed touchline kicks -- those kind of things in games like that are going to hurt you. You can't afford mistakes like that in games where you've got to make sure that everything is perfect. Unfortunately, tonight, individual errors at times let us down badly and have ended up costing us."
The Ulster coach also felt that referee Romain Poite got it wrong several times at key junctures, though he hastened to add that he did not hold the French official responsible for Ulster's demise.
"We were penalised twice in the scrum when we shouldn't have been. And I
thought he was a bit poor in and around the breakdown. I'll have to check it on the video but I think a prop came in and picked up the ball at the back of a ruck when he was offside," he said.
Leicester coach Richard Cockerill agreed with his Ulster counterpart's view that things might well have gone differently and that mistakes had hurt the visitors badly.
"They had their opportunities to put us under pressure," he said. "Humphreys' kick at goal, which would have made it 12-12, just slid to the left and that might have given things a different complexion if it had gone over. But they're a good side and we have a huge amount of respect for them."
But it could -- should -- have been different and that reality is the ghost Ulster now must exorcise. Before they expel it, however, they must bank some harsh lessons from their encounter with the spectre currently haunting them, the most painful of those being the reminder that in the Heineken Cup you are punished for mistakes.
Ulster were in the hunt up until the 67th minute when Matt Smith touched down from Toby Flood's well-judged kick in behind the defence, thereby making it 17-9.
That eight-point differential meant it didn't matter that Flood missed the conversion from touch but he then added his fifth penalty of the contest with the last kick of the match; Ulster were going home empty-handed.
The facts are these: three times Ulster led, with Ian Humphreys on target with a hat-trick of first-half penalties from distance. Three times Leicester responded through Flood. With the interval scores tied at 9-9, first blood after the break was going to be important. Leicester drew it, with Flood -- from half-way -- giving them the lead for the first time by landing his fourth penalty from five attempts.
Three minutes later, Ulster had a golden opportunity to do what Leicester had done to them throughout the first half, namely draw level quickly after going behind. But having kicked a trio of gems, Humphreys fluffed what was by far the easiest of his four penalty attempts.
Thus the tide turned in Leicester's favour in the space of a few vital minutes. The Tigers had their noses in front and McLaughlin's side had not taken the chance to cancel out their three-point advantage. The momentum, the dynamic, had changed irrevocably.
Leicester Tigers -- G Murphy (capt); H Agulla, M Smith, A Forsyth (N Morris 17), A Tuilagi; T Flood, S Harrison (B Youngs 57); M Ayerza (B Stankovich 75), G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni 57), L Deacon, G Parling (G Skivington 52), T Croft (S Mafi 74), J Salvi, T Waldrom.
Ulster -- S Danielli (A D'Arcy 68); A Trimble, D Cave, N Spence, C Gilroy; I Humphreys (P Jackson 74), P Marshall; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick (A Macklin 68), J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg.
REF -- R Poite (France)