Thursday 27 April 2017

Ulster must make a point in Clermont

Leicester's demise continues unabated, but stiffer tests await Ulster, writes Neil Francis

'Stephen Ferris we all know is a force of nature, and for me he was the most effective player on the pitch'
'Stephen Ferris we all know is a force of nature, and for me he was the most effective player on the pitch'
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In the auction of win-at-all-costs in rugby at this level, we know from experience that Leicester have always been the highest bidders.

They have contravened the manifestly just ethos of the game on too many occasions to make them a team that people could warm to. Cold-blooded cynicism, street wisdom on the park that would, to the right-thinking man, infract the sporting nature of the contest. Above all, malice aforethought being the predominant instinct.

Every Leicester player is imbued with a trigger impulse to do what needs to be done at the time of asking -- in or outside the law. When they lose, everyone rejoices; when they get beaten out the gate in a must-win game, there's an inquiry.

Rick (the p is silent) Cockerill has done a half-decent job with Leicester. They have a few Aviva Premierships to their name in the last few years and were competitive and awkward opponents for Leinster in the 2009 Heineken Cup final in Murrayfield. They were, though, the inferior team. Welford Road is a difficult place to pick up a win -- so too are the homes of Aironi and the Dragons, if we are to believe what coaches tell us in pre-match interviews.

Leinster outlasted them again in the quarter-final in April at the Aviva but the direction of the graph is unmistakable and the result last Friday is proof positive of two things: first is that the Aviva Premiership has the aesthetic appeal and quality of a lukewarm consommé; and the second is that Leicester's demise continues unabated. It matters little if they eventually catch up on their slow start to the season and win the Premiership. The currency of that competition has faltered and diminished and for a club who aspire to so much more, its frustrations must be beginning to bite.

Under audit, they have failed again. They have deep pockets and resources, they will re-invent themselves on retrospection but it's official: nobody is scared of them anymore. Even the English bookies will have them in double-digit odds for next year's competition.

This preamble does scant justice to Ulster's excellence. The news last week that Ulster had renewed Ruan Pienaar's contract for another two years might not have gone down too well with the living dead at HQ but the return on investment on Pienaar's talent was magnified by a performance of piercing intelligence. He controlled the game from scrumhalf and late on when he moved to outhalf he controlled the game from there as well.

A point that has to be made is that Leicester had eight non-English starters to Ulster's five non-Irish. It was obvious though that Ulster's buy-ins were considerably more effective in their primary and collective roles. Johann Muller led well and gave Ulster substance at lineout time. He is a decent shepherd. Pedrie Wannenburg did the gritty and abrasive stuff well but he featured in three of Ulster's tries, with soft hands and great dexterity in the passes which led directly to tries. He has far higher skill levels than I credited him with.

But it was Ulster's indigenous players who really impressed. Whether Declan Kidney takes note or not is a matter for conjecture. Stephen Ferris we all know is a force of nature, and for me he was the most effective player on the pitch and the prime mover at the breakdown.

The reason Ulster won the game was because they dominated the tackle zone. The Leicester defence was not quite as inflexible as it needed to be and they gave up cheap yards to Ulster's ball carriers. The quality and speed of the ball laid back for Pienaar was in stark contrast to some of the muck Ben Youngs had to deal with on the other side of the ruck. Ferris was by no means Ulster's most productive tackler. He had seven tackles in the game while Wannenburg had 10 and Chris Henry had 12, but it is the quality of tackling which illustrates his value to his side.

While the game was still a contest, there was a period of mesmerising play from both sides in the eighth minute and it looked like it would be decisive for Leicester as they took advantage of a bit of luck to put Anthony Allan away into Ulster's 22 with the cover scrambling to close him down.

Allan was doing enough to get a ticket and a fine when he was hit from behind by a white blur. Ferris's pace is incongruous when you take into account how big he really is.

Here is the difference in quality between Ferris and most other destructive blindsides. Why just tackle a player when you can empty his guts on the field. Allan couldn't see who was about to tackle him but I would suggest that it never crossed his mind that it was a 6' 4", 18-stone wrecking ball who could run faster than him. Ferris cleaved him and for Leicester the move ended there and then. Ulster briefly counterattacked, it went nowhere but, as a demonstration of intent, it said everything.

Chris Henry was surprisingly good throughout the night and the Ulster back row dominated their opponents with marvellous concentration of purpose. Tom Croft is a Lions Test blindside forward yet every time he meets Ferris on the pitch it is embarrassing. Leicester's back row needs some backbone.

Andrew Trimble is now established as Ireland's number one winger. It will be interesting to see who has to play on the left wing for Ireland. He did have one moment of madness when he needlessly rushed out of the line for Geordan Murphy's try, but Leicester never threatened thereafter and Ulster's resolve in the tackle was sure. The question is will it hold when they leave the comfort blanket of Ravenhill? Can they defend against Clermont the way they did against Leicester?

If Friday night was a litmus test, then they showed great resilience, organisation and determination. However, this competition could have been drafted by Heller, they've been successful and so they have to fly another mission. This one next week will tell us all we need to know about Ulster, 19 points won't be enough. They need one in Clermont.

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