Sunday 17 December 2017

Humphreys factor sparks magnificent Ulster rising

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

For the second week running -- in the reciprocals of the back-to-back rubbers -- the advantage was with the home side in massive games for our Heineken Cup three.

You always felt one result would go against the grain, that one of the travellers would win on the road. Quite which one would have the wherewithal to put it all together, two weeks running, was a matter of conjecture.

Now we know, and to Brian McLaughlin's Ulstermen go the bragging rights. To beat Bath home and away on consecutive Saturdays takes some doing.

It sets the northern side up nicely for the mother of all battles against Biarritz in Ravenhill in four weeks' time, with the real prospect not just of qualification for the knockout stages for the first time since 1999, but also of topping their pool.

With top spot would probably come a home quarter-final; if anything is crucial to further progress in this ultra-competitive European competition, it is home comfort in the last eight.

Ulster remain some way from the finished article, but bearing in mind the absence of Rory Best and Stephen Ferris from Saturday's line-up, this was a major step in the right direction.

Bit by bit they are ticking the relevant boxes, with a bonus coming in the stand-out form of young centre Nevin Spence.

What made Ulster great in times past was the Team Ulster ethic fostered under Jimmy Davidson; while this is a different era, Ulster's southern hemisphere contingent is buying into that siege mentality.


There is, too, the Humphreys factor. Hands up, I do carry a certain amount of bias here. Ian is my type of out-half. Yes he is unpredictable, yes he produces the occasional howler, but it is that unpredictability which sparks any team -- and particularly this developing Ulster one -- into offensive action.

He is anything but a sunshine player -- for sure the sun wasn't shining in the West Country on Saturday -- and he is prepared to give it a go from anywhere, anytime. In fairness to McLaughlin, he is not putting any lid on his main playmaker's adventure factor.

The modern game has become so staid, so predictable, so pre-rehearsed that we need key decision-makers in key sectors to be innovative. With the younger of two outstanding footballing brothers you take the good with the bad, the sublime with the ridiculous.

Even a coach as seasoned as McLaughlin is learning that to be essential. When Humphreys is good, so too are Ulster. On Saturday he was and they were.

Alas for Munster, the fundamental into which they have put so much hard work and effort pre-season was dismantled alarmingly in Swansea.

However much the game changes, in many ways it stays the same. The scrum is as important now as it ever was. Those who suggest it is merely a means to restart are living in cloud cuckoo land. On Saturday, at the Liberty Stadium, Munster were fleeced in the set-piece.

They have a serious problem in need of address. Quite whether that can be done in four weeks, before Toulon go for the front-row jugular, I'm not so sure. Munster have been here before -- backs to the wall -- and turned it around, but given the quality of scrummaging they are next to face, time is of the essence.

The Tony Buckley experiment is on the line. For all the wrecking-ball qualities he brings in attack and all the John Hayes-like force he brings in defence, the Munster scrum lacks any obvious anchor where it still needs it most. Hayes, though winding down his great career, may still provide a viable alternative for an hour or so in France.

Tony McGahan and Laurie Fisher must examine every conceivable option for what lies ahead. One thing's for sure: a repeat of the Ospreys' scrummaging demolition and it will be curtains at the Stade Felix-Mayol next month.

For performance of the weekend, look no further than Leinster. As a message to the rest of Europe, the opening hour at the Aviva was chilling.

This was Leinster at their most complete: Total Rugby, balancing competitiveness in the line-out with solidity in the scrum, claustrophobic aggression in the tackle and inventiveness in attack. Joe Schmidt has taken the Michael Cheika platform and added to it another level. Granted, no cup was handed out on Saturday, but for progress and desire, the Schmidt blueprint is the one to follow.

Bear in mind this was the Top 14 champions, hell-bent on making its mark on Europe, yet they were disassembled by a clearly superior all-round force.

The bonus point may have eluded Leinster but the substance of this performance against top-quality opposition meant that little else did.

Despite the Arctic conditions, almost 45,000 paying spectators (tickets were sensibly priced at €20 for adults and €5 for children) turned up. That many and more will be back at the Aviva for big Leinster matches to come. Mick Dawson, Pat Fitzgerald and the marketing committee can take a well-deserved bow.

On the field there were big performers and performances in every sector. When each and every individual delivers, then no coach can ask for more.

Cian Healy picked up the individual gong. It could just as easily been hoovered up by Sean O'Brien. The all-action, ultra-honest Tullow man was again immense. The watching Declan Kidney and Gert Smal cannot but have been impressed. So too with Mike Ross, Eoin Reddan and the double try-scoring Healy.

Healy when fully focused is a major talent in the making. Skipper Leo Cullen -- what a difference he has made since his return from Leicester -- summed it up best when saying "he (Healy) is a work in progress".


By propping standards he is a gasúr -- still only 23 years of age -- and can on occasion be a loose cannon, conceding penalties mindlessly at the breakdown. Cullen and Nathan Hines keep him in check. On Saturday he was disciplined, deadly and, like O'Brien, like a magnet to the ball.

Shane Jennings was back to the 'get down and dirty' form that had eluded him of late, while Jamie Heaslip was simply himself -- the Irish skipper in waiting.

But wait he will have to, because yet again Brian O'Driscoll delivered the type of leadership performance (irrespective of armband) we have come to expect from him. He and Gordon D'Arcy are the fulcrum of a near-impenetrable midfield defence.

Like Ulster, Leinster have put themselves in pole position to top their pool. Munster may have a mountain to climb to qualify, but I believe they will climb it, in typically resilient fashion.

The November Series was a dampener but with all three provinces in position to make the knockouts collectively for the first time it augurs well for the wide open Six Nations and World Cup to come.

As for those dancing on Munster's grave, when will they ever learn?


15 P Warwick (Munster); 14 I Nacewa (Leinster), 13 B O'Driscoll (Leinster), 12 G D'Arcy (Leinster), 11 N Spence (Ulster); 10 I Humphreys (Ulster), 9 E Reddan (Leinster); 1 C Healy (Leinster), 2 D Varley (Munster), 3 M Ross (Leinster); 4 N Hines (Leinster), 5 M O'Driscoll (Munster); 6 S O'Brien (Leinster), 7 S Jennings (Leinster), 8 R Diack (Ulster).

Irish Independent

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