McLaughlin has his heart set on date at the Aviva
Published 23/01/2011 | 05:00
Ulster were last night dreaming of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals -- and a possible meeting with Leinster at the Aviva.
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin made little attempt to hide his delight after his team's six-try win in Italy that gave them a place in the last eight for the first time since 1999, the year they won the trophy.
"We are delighted to be where we are," he said. "This was one of our goals last summer and we have achieved it. As for the quarter-finals, we will think about who we play when we see the draw. But if you are pushing me, Leinster at the Aviva would be the icing on the cake. It would be nice if it was them."
The runaway 43-6 win will have looked from afar like a stroll in an Italian piazza. But when Ulster reached half-time only 10-6 up, it looked anything but.
Even McLaughlin (pictured) was forced to admit his men's tactics had been awry before half-time. "We tried to play too much rugby in the first half and turned over the ball. We forced it when we should have held onto the ball. Actually, I thought we played well in the first five to 10 minutes, but then we relaxed a little bit.
"We changed it around in the second half because we agreed at half-time we needed to tighten it up a bit. And we came good in the end. We got our control and discipline right after half-time which was what we asked for at the interval. So I am delighted.
"The bonus point wasn't actually mentioned the whole time during the week. The key thing for us was to come here and finish the job. All credit to the players because they did that."
But McLaughlin wasn't about to put his feet up until April on the back of this achievement.
"We have done remarkably well but we can't rest on our laurels," he said. "It is the first time in 12 years we have got this far and I thought our forwards today after half-time were smashing in the mauls and with the penalty try.
"But there is a lot more still to come from that pack and our young back-line went well too. We have a lot of talent out there and I do believe we are only going to get better."
It certainly didn't look that way in the first half. Ulster failed to show sufficient ruthlessness by pinning down the Aironi defenders, something they changed completely after the break by taking them on and crushing them with superior power up front.
There were so many Ulster mistakes in the first 40 minutes that it became increasingly frustrating. Passes were dropped or knocked on, balls turned over in contact, needless penalties conceded and there was no rhythm or potency to the Ulster game.
Did McLaughlin change it all at half-time with a quick blast of the Alex Ferguson hairdryer treatment? Maybe that's not his style, but you could have understood his frustration had he done so.
An Ulster team of eight internationals was clearly superior to the plucky but outclassed Italians. Yet they took an age to make that superiority count. And typically, it was big South African No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg who turned the game around.
He finished off two dynamic rolling mauls for crash-over tries inside the first six minutes of the second half. And when Ulster won a penalty try after Aironi's beaten forwards had twice twisted a scrum five, Ulster suddenly had the game in their hands.
Wannenburg played down his own role, saying: "I didn't do much. I just sat behind the maul and they made two tries for me. They did all the hard work and I just sat there."
Ulster captain Johan Muller called it "a special feeling". He went on: "We have a special bunch of guys and it's a great feeling to have reached the quarter-finals. And if we can work hard and build on what we already have, we can go forward from here.
"The first half we went at it the wrong way. We played too much rugby and tried to throw it around too much. That played into their hands. But we knew we had to tighten up a bit and start holding onto the ball. So that's what the boys did in the second half.
"There wasn't a lot of talk at half-time but we did what we had to do."
Aironi doffed their caps to a masterful second-half display by their opponents. Coach Rowland Phillips admitted: "The better side won, there's no doubt of that. But I thought we did well in the first half until their superior strength began to tell."
Sunday Indo Sport