Friday 20 October 2017

We knew we were physically dominant and that tactically we could emerge on top -- Trimble

Ulster's Johann Muller during squad training
Ulster's Johann Muller during squad training
David Kelly

David Kelly

Only moments after the annexing of Welford Road, Johann Muller's cold, calculating South African mind was already computing the task that lies two months ahead against Saracens.

For Muller and his Ulster side, it is akin to looking in the mirror, such are the similarities between the clubs, in terms of style and personnel. A Ravenhill reunion with Mark McCall, returning home to a place where both parties were arguably too undeveloped to prosper when they were married, will forge a hugely emotional cord with home supporters.

"It will be an interesting game-plan against Sarries, there won't be much passing," said Leicester coach Richard Cockerill with predictable lack of grace.

Whatever -- the spanking re-development of Ravenhill will receive an appropriately grand christening.

Muller, though, only has eyes for the grand prize. "Four times!" he cajoled his team-mates, as they huddled in the centre of the Welford Road stadium, the warm glow of victory still drawing sweat and adrenalin from their weary bones. "Nothing!"

His point was simply made. Ulster may have established themselves as a more superior force, but they have merely threatened the order, not tilted it upon its axis.

"It's our fourth quarter-final in a row, but we haven't won anything yet," noted Andrew Trimble.

"We're in a position to win the Heineken Cup, but only if we continue to do what we're doing. All we're looking at is Saracens at home, we're not looking any further than a quarter-final."

It was epic and absorbing, containing all the core elements of Cup rugby; true, the only flair came from the kicking duels, although Cockerill's typically robust dismissal of Ulster's character traits was predictably awry.

"They won it on a charge-down," said Cockerill, who trotted out the usual English line about differing interpretations before disparaging the victors.

"Whether you need to play more rugby to win this competition is debatable. We're not a team that wants to kick the ball in the air all the time and hope for the best.

"Maybe we tried to play too much. They didn't create much from a try-scoring point of view.

"They played well for their win, they defended very well and we've only ourselves to blame."

Had Leicester as much self-assuredness as personified by their coach, they surely would have displayed the mental and physical resources to drive for the line, particularly in such a tight game, and especially after building a formidable 19-9 lead in their five-minute second-half scoring blitz.

They didn't have the necessary ingredients; Ulster instead illustrated all the requirements of a championship team.

"We didn't discuss much at half-time," noted Trimble of Ulster's cussed single-mindedness.

"We were confident in our game-plan and wanted to stick at it. It was a blip when they got that chip through and we didn't deal with it, but they're an opportunistic side.

"We knew the game wasn't going that way at 19-9. We knew we were physically dominant and tactically we knew we could get on top of them eventually."

And Trimble wasn't about to offer excuses for the dearth of frills attached to the victory; history may assign a meritocracy of the aesthetic, but ultimate success is achieved by the numbers.

Free-flowing rugby wasn't exactly a trademark of the still-lauded 1999 winners either.

"It's difficult here, I've been here a few times and it's a narrow pitch," added Trimble. "They didn't contest rucks. You keep hitting brick walls. Maybe we could have snapped back a few times from side to side, but they're very regimented in D.

"You can't get bored with just doing basic stuff, especially with Ruan and Paddy putting the ball on a sixpence every time. The breeze was a nightmare in terms of gathering kicks. I was all over the place with one. A lot of balls hit grass and you've got to play to that. I've no problem with playing a game like that if the occasion demands it."

In fact, Leicester kicked almost as many times from the hand -- 30 as opposed to 32 in a game featuring a line-out more than once every three minutes -- and their three-quarters scarcely represented a searing threat.

Ulster did most things better than their opponents and, if they struggled in areas, they boasted more room for improvement.

They must still do if they are to prove a more realistic title candidate than in 2012, when, despite reaching the final, they were blitzed by that year's one truly outstanding team, Leinster.

This season, all eight quarter-finalists are top-notch, but none have streaked ahead of the pack in terms of outstanding quality.

"If we produce a big performance like we did tonight and show the same commitment, heart and the work-rate, backing each other up, I've every confidence that we can win the quarter-final," says Trimble.

His still beating heart -- and those of their 2,000 travelling support -- could not resist a more audacious aspiration. "And who knows what can happen after that," Trimble concludes before departing for the wearily happy journey homewards.

Irish Independent

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