Sunday 4 December 2016

Getting at Johnny Sexton the key to Ulster's winning game-plan

Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30

Sean Reidy will be a key player in Ulster's plans to beat Leinster Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Sean Reidy will be a key player in Ulster's plans to beat Leinster Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

'How do I spurn thee, let me count the ways?'

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It is hard to know what is more agonising for a supporter; being so far removed from glory that it becomes hopelessly illusory, or having it so tantalisingly within reach only to remain unrequited.

Ulster remain a decade in the title wilderness, the first half splendidly isolated from the cutting edge, the latter frustratingly elbowed from the winning frame by sides hewn from mentally and physically superior materials.

Predominantly, that side has been Leinster, whether in their stunning zenith, the 2012 European final, or subsequently, both a final and a semi-final of the Guinness Pro12 in successive seasons.

Ulster unwittingly amused all by discovering another route to heartbreak by succumbing at a different location - Scotstoun - by the hands of a different conqueror - Glasgow - last May, downed by a last-gasp try. The perennial April mood music has remained one of optimism but history suggests that the discordant tune in May will record a similar, familiar bum note.

Improbable

"We have to break history," says director of rugby Les Kiss, simply. "We know we've got to win this one. That's all there is to it."

For all the familiar stories of heartbreak - Robbie Diack's improbable spin before spurning a certain score in 2013, the late, failed lineout drive in 2014, last season's late, late Glasgow show - Ulster simply haven't earned the right to be called champions.

"Ulster haven't performed," admits former Ulster and Ireland centre Maurice Field, "particularly in the RDS.

"They've done well for an hour and then faded away so this needs to be different. They have had chances and leads. But they need to put a team away."

No team has ever won an away semi-final so that history must also, in Kiss' words, be broken; so too a reliance on form; Ulster's, four wins in a row, including a thumping of Friday's opposition a mere three weeks ago, is not necessarily as relevant as they would like to hope.

"I don't expect a backlash," says Kiss, in reference to the 30-6 win in Belfast when the away side appeared to fold its tent long before full-time.

"We will be facing a Leinster team that more represents what they are than on that day."

They will, though, operate without their two chief opensides while Ulster will maintain a development forced upon them by Nick Williams' injury, with Chris Henry and Sean Reidy replicating the Wallabies' twin sevens template.

The pair will have attacking and defensive remits; to ensure Ulster's scintillating back-line are served with the type of ball they can thrive upon, while also seeking to derive traditional value in unsettling the opposition out-half, Jonathan Sexton.

"That was the key in Kingspan and that put pressure on Johnny," says Field. "And if you put pressure on Johnny, he gets niggled by it. Everything goes through him.

"If you can get to him, and start him bitching at everything, bitching at the referee, bitching at boys around him, that is half the battle the won. If he is getting hit by two opensides continually, that could help Ulster.

"Sean is a good footballer, he's bulked up. He's flown under the radar continually and he has come to the fore in the last few games, he is an excellent link man.

"If they get fast ball, Ruan Pienaar is on the front-foot and Paddy Jackson can let the back-line free.

"Johnny had been running the show for them the last few years but that has been helped by having Brian O'Driscoll outside him, always in his ear on attack and defence .

"This season it is Johnny running the show on his own. Ben Te'o is a great player but he is only worried about Ben Te'o. He is not potentially Johnny's wing-man.

"Brian had the experience of reading the game, using those offloads and flicks to keep things alive. Johnny is now forcing it a bit because of having a different player outside him.

"There's an expectation on him now to make everything happen at once and that was far easier when someone like Brian was there. It took the pressure off inside."

Visceral

"Now teams know that if you concentrate on Sexton, you don't need to worry because the boys outside won't get the ball."

Unlike their most recent fixture, Leinster will present white heat, not bear a white flag. Their commitment to bully up front will be far more visceral, hence Ulster's response, a wide game, will need to be far more visionary.

Guts must accompany glory, though.

"There's a sheer sense of bloody-mindedness from Rory Best and Andrew Trimble, the spine of the team who have been through so many losses," adds Field.

"It's that they are so pissed off at losing in May. It's been 2006 since silverware came up here. And there comes a time when you have to say stop."

Only then can they start believing.

Irish Independent

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