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Tuesday 26 September 2017

Neil Francis: Leinster and Ulster need a Rabo to rescue seasons of lost promise

Mark Anscombe will hope Ruan Pienaar can bail Ulster out in semi-final rematch, writes Neil Francis

A general view of Ravenhill Park as the Ulster team come onto the pitch ahead of the game
A general view of Ravenhill Park as the Ulster team come onto the pitch ahead of the game
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Friday night's contest between Ulster and Leinster was as usual a feral and ferocious encounter. Not so much a dress rehearsal for their pre-ordained semi-final in two weeks’ time, more a sorbet to cleanse the palate.

Once again, Ulster were not strong enough to outmuscle, nor clever enough to outthink Leinster and this continuing frustration led to episodes of unpleasantness.

I thought referee Luke Pearce had a decent game and kept his head as the Roman crowd bayed for blood. I do think that the Ravenhill crowd bear some responsibility for some of the events that have occurred over the last couple of weeks as their players are unable to make the compromise between full out and a more tempered approach to playing the game. 

Leinster again walked away with the spoils after expressing themselves poorly on the night — they can be difficult to watch. On reflection, if I was in a leadership position, I probably would have chosen the course that they employed from the 17th minute onwards. Not much point in throwing the ball around when you have numerical superiority and a far more powerful scrum in the first instance. You play the situation as it is. I think the cognoscenti call it ‘heads up rugby'.

Leinster's winning habit has got to Ulster and it's like asking a lamp post what it thinks of the dog. Leinster just know how to beat Ulster and it seems to be causing all sorts of frustration within the Ulster camp that they can't win when it really matters.

Ulster's plight is compelling and I admire what David Humphreys has done for the franchise. The province was stagnating three or four years ago and Humphreys’ realism and forward planning got them into the position of contenders. Serial pool winners and finalists in 2012, this was to be their year. The opportunity of a lifetime must be taken during the lifetime of that opportunity. Ulster fluffed their lines and we must examine forensically what happened.

Ulster lost by two points. If Ruan Pienaar had been on the park — even with a man down — you would have fancied them to win. If he is fit for Dublin in two weeks, Ulster will have a chance. Pienaar's presence in the squad in many regards is difficult to comprehend. When Mourad Boudjellal took out his wallet to try and replace the ineffectual Stefan Tillous-Borde, you figured that would be a done deal and Ulster would lose their playmaker. The deal that was offered to Pienaar was somewhere north of £70,000 per month — that's Jonny Wilko territory.

The question that has to be asked is not how much Ulster are paying him, it is who is paying him? Ulster have presumably tapped into the commercial sector in order to pay their man above any other player on this island. You have to credit Humphreys for his vision and bloody-mindedness for thinking outside the box and getting a player who was equal to the sum of the parts to stay within his roster. 

That roster is about to break up. Johann Muller is retiring, a huge loss and a great rugby man whose enthusiasm and loyalty were undoubted. John Afoa, who allegedly was taking home £415,000, buggers off to Gloucester who are offering more dough following Pedrie Wannenberg who had gone before him. That seam of quality that had made Ulster serious contenders has disappeared and you wonder how they will prosper without them. 

I had fancied Ulster to beat Saracens in Ravenhill and I was optimistic they would have progressed against Clermont in Dublin. It is a matter of regret that they blew their chance in Ravenhill, particularly to a side like Saracens. Jared Payne is alleged to be on the same sort of money as Afoa but has been marked down as a ‘project player’.

The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking for ourselves and Payne has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Brian O'Driscoll and Ireland's new outside centre. I would dispute the validity of that given argument.

Payne's dismissal against Saracens was the subject of considerable debate. It is beyond belief that people who watch the video again and again still think that Payne had his eyes fixed firmly on the ball as it came down from the sky. You can see clearly that he took his eyes off the ball three or four steps from the contact with Alex Goode, the Saracens fullback.

Quite often when the ball is put into the air, you can see the man who the ball was kicked to who is closer to the ball will be the man who will make the initial challenge, that is if he is any kind of footballer at all.

Goode is a very decent footballer. Payne to my mind realised the challenge was gone a couple of steps from the point of contact and should have pulled out. It is easy to say this in hindsight because most people probably don't realise how quickly things happen at this level. To pull out of the challenge would have been to lose face in front of the Ravenhill crowd and Payne permitted himself to wander in to the contact zone without making a safe or an effective challenge.

There was nothing malicious in what he did but that term reckless endangerment will keep coming back to haunt him. As he waited for Jerome Garces to make a deliberation, there was a blank expression on Payne's face. Payne knew what was coming and any faux expression of surprise wouldn't fool anyone. As he walked so did Ulster's chances of bringing home the Heineken Cup. They had a very real chance of doing it this season and their indiscipline has cost them.  In replacing that indigenous player the margin of difference in quality is usually negligible

There are four or five players ahead of Payne in the queue, including his team-mate Luke Marshall, to replace O'Driscoll. Payne is a talented player and he has a lovely balanced running style and is a consummate footballer. The thing is, he is not Irish. He wasn't born here, he didn't play his schools rugby here and like Tom Court, who played his last game at home for Ulster and signed off with another red card, as soon as they are finished their career on this side of the equator they return home to their families in Australia/New Zealand having deprived an indigenous Irish person of their place on the team.

In replacing that indigenous player the margin of difference in quality is usually negligible. I fundamentally disagree with this scheme.

Mark Anscombe needs some silverware and at this stage, despite all their saucy dreams, a Rabo will do. But they face a very difficult ask away to Leinster. Matt O'Connor has had an average season and his needs are pressing too. A Rabo against a very dangerous Glasgow side in four weeks might just exorcise that non-performance in Toulon back in April. The jury awaits.

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