Monday 10 December 2018

Errors in the red zone a big worry

Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss ahead of the match against La Rochelle at the Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss ahead of the match against La Rochelle at the Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

'Cinderella story: This unknown comes out of nowhere to lead the pack out of Augusta." Bill Murray's classic cameo in the movie Caddyshack as the deranged greenkeeper taking the heads off chrysanthemums with his rake at Bushwood Golf Club. Pretending he is playing in Augusta. "Out of nowhere, former greenkeeper about to become the Masters Champion Oh he got hold of that one, I don't believe it, it's in the hole".

Stephen Donald is coming on a short-term contract to fill the gap left by Christian Lealiifano. It is such a counterproductive and even counterintuitive move and it is too late to stop it now as the deal has been agreed. I think the move really shows a lack of faith and is such a short-term way of thinking that you would have to ask the Ulster management to think again.

During the 2011 World Cup, New Zealand suffered an outhalf crisis that should really have derailed a much-needed home World Cup win. Dan Carter, their talisman, got injured early in the competition. Colin Slade got injured a match or two later leaving Aaron Cruden as their starter.

Cruden is a very decent international standard outhalf and game manager, but with Richie McCaw operating on one leg, New Zealand didn't need any more bad news. Stephen Donald was fishing and playing out time in New Zealand before he headed off to Bath. He didn't have his mobile on in the boat and it took the remainder of the day before he realised the All Blacks were looking for him.

Donald made 23 appearances for the All Blacks between 2008 and 2011, nearly all of them off the bench, but he was a long way off the standard required and he received scathing criticism for some of his performances by the New Zealand press and public. An accidental international and a long way off what you would expect to be directing affairs for the best team in the world.

And so Ulster have turned to the Sam Allardyce of rugby stand-ins. Donald has had stints with the Mitsubishi Dynaboars, the Suntory Sun Goliaths, Bath, counties Manukau, Waikato and the list goes on. He is known as the player who kicked the winning goal in the 2011 World Cup final, but if you ever watch the video of that kick it tells you a lot about Donald.

It was a straightforward kick from about 40 metres out, but there was an extraordinary amount of huffing and puffing as everything went through his head. The Kiwi's last words to himself were 'follow through', which he didn't, only extending his leg half way. The ball wobbled and got through the posts with an inch to spare on the right upright.

Donald will be asked to run the show in Ulster where he is a long way off the calibre of player they require to keep their season going. Lealiifano did a pretty good job and leaves the fold next weekend when Ulster, despite their heroics yesterday, will struggle to get through.

One of the things about working in this industry is spotting talent. I make it my business to watch Ireland under 20 sides. It was obvious that Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour would come through. Johnny McPhillips was another notable in those teams and yet despite the progress by his two illustrious team mates, he hasn't been given the chance just yet. Yesterday he got a 10-minute cameo when Lealiifano went off but it is imperative whether Ulster will make it or not into the knockout stages that they persevere with McPhillips.

It is hard to gauge whether or not Ulster are making progress. It is hard to gauge what their culture is. The modern game can change the complexion of your roster. Ulster had eight players in their run-out team that were not from Ulster stock - is that a good thing or a bad thing? They have four Kiwis, one Australian, six Saffers and an ever increasing number of Dubs. Are the imports the reason for their depressingly familiar inconsistency?

Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes are very capable coaches and yet they have not managed to put any kind of an imprint or a seal on what Ulster do. If you look down south, one of the reasons why Leinster are so good is their command of the basics. I don't think Ulster's skill set and their control of the basics is anywhere close to where it needs to be.

They did well yesterday to weather a very troubling first quarter and eventually settled in to enjoy their defensive chores. It looked like La Rochelle's mesmerising off-load game, where they work in triangles to get men away, would devastate Ulster, but Ulster just about weathered it and when the initial foray petered out they managed to get back into the game.

How is it, though, that they could miss 27 tackles against Leinster in Dublin and pare it back in to just 15 and a far more assured defensive performance yesterday? They miss Jared Payne's influence here desperately. Whether their defensive failings are things of the heart or just mental process, Payne shows some mental starch and is just a very clever player when it comes to reading what teams will do when they are attacking the Ulster line.

Ulster really should have got their try bonus point and a lot of this was attributed to a lack of command when they were in the red zone. Eleven penalties at home is unforgivable and Joe Schmidt will have put it down in his notebook, even though not many were conceded by any of his Ireland players. Handling errors when Ulster were going through the phases three or four times in the second half cost them dear and this is where they lag behind Leinster and Munster. You do not make mistakes or handling errors when you are close in and soft turnovers are symptomatic of this team.

Whether Ulster qualify or not makes it a compelling game next weekend at the Ricoh. They are vulnerable and far from being a consistent side, but they can win if they apply some of the values that they demonstrated yesterday. They have also done everybody else in the competition a favour. La Rochelle would be virtually impossible to beat at home but they have lost two away games now and the likelihood is that they would not get a home draw.

Exeter, class side that they are, put Montpellier to the sword yesterday, which means the French are out of the competition which makes Leinster's plight much easier today and next week. The season gets better and better!

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