Kidney to reap harvest as Ulster bursts into bloom
Published 05/01/2010 | 05:00
Moral victories count for nothing in the professional game. That would have been the message hammered home by Brian McLaughlin in the aftermath of Ulster's gutsy losing performance at the RDS as his side prepared for last Saturday's 'must-win' game against Munster at Fortress Ravenhill.
McLaughlin's charges did just enough to hold off their visitors, and the four points moved them back into contention (three points off Munster) in the race for a Magners League play-off place in the top four. Had the result gone the other way, it would have left Ulster nine or 10 points adrift in the play-off chase. In that context, winning was everything.
Ulster have come an awful long way in a short time under McLaughlin, their unassuming new coach. They still have a way to go in terms of becoming major Heineken Cup players, but, bit by bit, the foundation is being put in place for making them the force they should be.
They took a back-to-basics approach on Saturday, and there was an element of mid-match stage-fright, but, in general, there is a healthy wholeness about the Ulster modus operandi. They play 'heads-up' rugby, with every player -- particularly those wearing No10 and 12 -- given the licence to play it as they see it. The free-running Ian Humphreys is the greatest beneficiary of that philosophy.
Niall O'Connor's turn will come, but for now it is Humphreys providing that high-tempo spark of invention. As a running out-half, he excites. He is not the complete article, but, as a catalyst for what McLaughlin and Ulster are about, he is the key piece in the revival jigsaw. His passing is top-notch; as with his distinguished brother David, it is a much understated strength of his game.
Were Ronan O'Gara and Jonny Sexton to get injured tomorrow, I would have no hesitation whatsoever in tossing the bearded one into the Ireland line-up.
Ulster's resurrection is timely from Declan Kidney's perspective. Apart from Humphreys and Paddy Wallace, short on game-time and unfortunate with injury, there are a number of key and developing players putting a strong case forward.
Stephen Ferris is a shoo-in, and the progress being made by Tom Court and No8 Chris Henry is just as significant. I wouldn't read too much into Saturday's scrum dominance -- given the second-string nature of the Munster pack -- but Court certainly capitalised on his opportunity to the full.
Andrew Trimble, too, has laid down a marker and is back in the frame as a very real alternative to Keith Earls for Luke Fitzgerald's spot on Ireland's left-wing. Despite Shane Horgan's outstanding form for Leinster, I hope Kidney resists the temptation to move Tommy Bowe across from right wing to left.
Bowe is, for me, the outstanding No14 in the global game. It would have been convenient for Kidney to get him back into the IRFU fold but Bowe's decision to re-sign for the Ospreys is no bad thing. It brings a different ingredient to the Ireland mix and, given the quality of the Ospreys' all-embracing rugby, that surely is something to be welcomed. I love the Ospreys' style and believe they have what it takes to make a meaningful assault on Europe. They come to Ravenhill on Friday positioned second in the Magners League, six points ahead of Ulster, making it another massive must-win match for Henry and company.
As for Munster, they can take away numerous positives, if only a single bonus point -- which keeps them in fourth place, bubbling just under.
Individually, there were substantial performances up front from Mick O'Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan, with Damien Varley also having his moments.
Behind the scrum, Peter Stringer and left-wing Ian Dowling were the outstanding two. Stringer may have his limitations as a running scrum-half, but when it comes to service there is none better. On Saturday, despite a retreating scrum and forward unit under intense pressure, he provided a master-class in slick, no-nonsense, wrist-driven clearance passing.
Dowling, too, is with working himself back into contention with each successive game since his return. Denis Hurley has done so much right and so little wrong when filling in out wide -- his inside angled line for Munster's second try in Perpignan was sublime -- but Dowling brings a more natural left-sided balance to the side.
Much could of course still depend on Tony McGahan's call in midfield. If Earls continues at centre, then Dowling could edge it over Hurley for the left flank.
The problem is in the coach getting the centre combination right -- which is the biggest European selection issue confronting the Munster management ahead of the trip to Treviso on Saturday week.
Jean de Villiers, despite one expensive missed tackle on Trimble on Saturday, is the best of three under-performing centres at present. At Ravenhill, Lifeimi Mafi again looked uncomfortable alongside the robust De Villiers.
If McGahan wants to burst down the opposing midfield door, then De Villiers, much like Trevor Halstead used to be, is the only man; but if he chooses to pick the lock, then Earls and Mafi are the preferred combination.
Mafi and Earls, though, are short on form and confidence individually and as a pair.
One final point on Saturday's game. I've made my views clear on man-of-the-match awards -- I abhor the whole principle in what is the consummate team sport.
Just for the record, Trimble was named the official man of the match. Donal Lenihan, as astute an observer as there is, nominated Court, while someone else suggested in the immediate aftermath that Simon Danielli, who scored both of Ulster's tries, was the biggest single difference between the sides.
For what it's worth, Ferris was for me the man who made the most powerful impact, on a night when physical strength at the breakdown really mattered. There you are: four very different takes on the same 80-minute match. Whatever else it is, it sure ain't science.