Ulster daring to dream of former glories
Biarritz will offer a stern test to Ulster's early-season momentum, writes Brendan Fanning
R emember the season after they won the European Cup? Ulster opened the campaign dismally away to Bourgoin before welcoming Wasps to Ravenhill where the home team would get to play their first European game as champions.
There and then they got a picture of such clarity that it was hard for them to look at it. Certainly the bit we remember best was the post-match interview when Lawrence Dallaglio was being asked how humbling it must have been to come to a citadel like Ravenhill and be leaving with their lives, never mind full points.
Dallaglio played along, tipping his cap with some spiel about how great it was to overcome such a force as Ulster, when patently he didn't believe a word of it. It was 19-6 on the night and it may as well have been 90 for all the doubt there was about where the points were going. Ulster had been found out and the road ahead for them was poorly lit and very uneven.
Since then there has been a lot of stumbling, and only a couple of times did they give the impression that they could motor out of their pool -- under the separate regimes of Alan Solomons and Mark McCall. In the 11 seasons since the '99 watermark, however, they haven't won even half their group games.
Now we are in the Brian McLaughlin era -- well, the McLaughlin and David Humphreys age, for it was their favourite son who managed to wangle enough cash out of the IRFU for them to dip into the South African market and come up with a handful of Krugerrands.
To complete the picture, Ulster got comfortably the best draw of the Irish teams, as well as the ideal launch and landing pads with Aironi to start at home and finish away. Perhaps having Biarritz back to back would have been the optimum but nobody was complaining. So the minimum requirement in the circumstances was a five-point lift-off at Ravenhill on Friday night. That went pretty much according to plan.
The immediate concern is an injury one, and it's critical in how they go next Sunday in Biarritz that Paddy Wallace's hamstring gets better and not worse. Perhaps there will come a time this season -- and you imagine Declan Kidney wishes this to be sooner rather than later -- when Wallace is at 10, but for the moment he will continue at inside-centre. And the likelihood is that in the south of France next week Ian Humphreys will line out at out-half again.
When McLaughlin handed Niall O'Connor the 10 shirt for the first tranche of games, it was with structure in mind. We don't know what McLaughlin had made of the trial by the time O'Connor got injured against Glasgow last weekend, but Humphreys did well enough on Friday. Well enough probably to stay there, in the hope of taking Biarritz out of their pattern of biff and kick -- effected by their powerful forwards and directed by the excellent Dimitri Yachvili.
With Humphreys you get more spontaneity, more madcap and a greater chance of offloads -- not all of them wanted. If there has been a recurring negative theme about Ulster this season, it's the number of phases they go through in order to make ground.
"I think you've got to look at the law interpretations which now are allowing the attacking side go to the ruck and win the ball," McLaughlin says. "If you risk the offload and it doesn't materialise, then you've lost the ball. Against Aironi we got a lot of quick ruck ball and a lot of front-foot ball which allowed us to go to the line and play offload. But if you try offloads from slow ball when the ruck is a mess you're putting yourself under awful pressure.
"Don't get me wrong: we want to play rugby. We're not setting out to be negative. We're actually setting out to be very positive. We want to improve and improve. The key thing for us going into Europe was to up our intensity and up the tempo we want to play at, but we didn't have the accuracy to really polish the game off. It wasn't a top-class performance but you've also got to look at the fact that we're still gelling -- we're a squad that hopefully will grow and grow as our South African contingent get to know us and we get to know them. I think we're just going to get better and better."
Certainly it's hard to argue with the stats: unbeaten in six games of competitive rugby this season, even if the roughest patch on their fixture list is coming in a six-game spell from mid-December to mid-January. That's when they'll need their South African contingent the most, a group which now has Ruan Pienaar as its crowd-pleaser.
"The one thing Ruan Pienaar gives you at nine is that's he's very astute, and the ball he gets away from the ruck is so quick it's unbelievable," says McLaughlin. "Because he's arriving at the ruck so quickly. And he reads the situation so well. No disrespect to Paul Marshall, who had done a great job for us this season, but Ruan reads it so well and his timing is so good the ball is zipped. In our last few games we're creating but we're not completing."
This will be Ulster's third time to go to Biarritz in the Heineken Cup. If they don't finish what they create there, the boys of '99 will feel even farther away. "The key thing for us is we've got to keep our feet on the ground. We're under no illusions about Biarritz and we know how good they are. But at the same time if we want to be in there at the death we have to be proving that we can compete with the best. Next week is our Holy Grail if you want to put it that way."