Thursday 26 April 2018

Brendan Fanning: Defensive solidity will not be enough this time

Ulster's honesty reflects the task that is facing them, says Brendan Fanning

When Ulster came out in the immediate aftermath of the semi-final win over Edinburgh last month and said that they weren't happy with the way they played, we thought they might have reached by accident for a line from an earlier outing.

Like their defeat at home by Leinster the previous week. Or losing away to Connacht the weekend before that.

But no, it was the semi-final they were talking about all right -- despite having made it back into the final for the first time since 1999 Ulster were taking time out to be objective.

The more distance you have between then and now, the more you appreciate their dilemma. When Brian McLaughlin came out with that line, he didn't know who they would be facing in the final. He did know however that whether it was Leinster or Clermont, Ulster couldn't expect to survive on so little possession.

"We showed our status as a solid defensive unit in the last two games and scrambled well, but apart from the first 20 minutes against Munster we have not had our hands on much ball," says Ruan Pienaar, their man of the match from that semi-final. "We can't really afford to do that against Leinster. They have world-class players and dangerous backs so it would be a mistake to let them have the ball for 80 minutes, which is more or less what happened against Edinburgh."

And that hadn't been the plan. It's not as if Ulster's South African influence extends so far that they would rather defend all day because culturally they are so in tune with that task. Rather they were up against a side whose ball retention is often very good and whose finishing rarely so. Lucky Ulster then.

Again McLaughlin's team, as they had done in Thomond Park, showed they could defend, having blitzed the home team in the opening quarter, with Craig Gilroy's explosive try its highlight. Not much opportunity for the man on the other wing to stretch his legs though.

Andrew Trimble is one of Ulster's big names, one of their limited number with the experience to be a leader on a big day. So far he's had little to lead with.

"To be honest, I have found that difficult, especially against Edinburgh," he says. "Maybe that's why for me I just felt relief to get through. I didn't get the ball in space; we didn't produce that many phases with the ball in hand so it was difficult to get into the game. I felt it difficult to make my mark in the game.

"I'd like to put that down to not having much ball but there is an onus on me to get myself involved. I've done it in the past and hopefully I will do it in the final. I feel there is more in front of me, I want to make more of an impact on a game than I'm doing at the minute. I want to feel like I'm part of it. I want to contribute to us winning the Heineken Cup. I don't want to be peripheral. I want to make an impact for my team-mates."

Okay, we hear you. And we understand that another rearguard effort, supplemented by the fantastic goal-kicking form of Pienaar, will hardly be enough against a team whose discipline saw them bottom of the yellow card charts in the Pro12, and of course sorted their escape against Clermont in the semi-final.

Can Leinster be better? "I think we have to be better," says forwards coach Jono Gibbes.

That's a sobering point for everyone else given the standards they have set in both competitions this season.

"No, my point is we have to be better because Ulster are going to be another gear up, definitely. The final is going to be the smallest of margins and there's a few things in our game we haven't quite nailed. I think we're going okay at the moment. I'm not being smart, I think we're working on the things that are important to us and that's putting us in a position to challenge for titles and stuff like that.

"That's positive and there's a real day-to-day focus on it so it's hard to look at the big stuff all the time. As I say, what's right in front of us keeps us pretty busy."

That has served them well up to this point. For Ulster to win, they need Gibbes and co to leave a few stones unturned, to fall down in an area that should be sorted. And then they need to extend the first quarter from Thomond Park into something a lot more substantial than anything we saw against Edinburgh. That combination looks like a long shot.

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