Monday 27 January 2020

Ruthless display banishes what-ifs

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Ulster will know how Edinburgh feel this morning.

They'll know what it's like to hear everyone praising your effort, your ambition and your enterprise and offering What-Ifs in consolation. What if Roman Poite had spotted the ball was out of the Ulster scrum before Pedrie Wannenburg's try; what if Edinburgh hadn't made handling mistakes ; what if they'd managed to score their try five minutes earlier.

What if nothing.

Because it was Ulster who used to be the what-if team, the side being patted on the back and told their day would come as they were edged out by the big guns. They're well aware of the absolute uselessness of moral victories. What counts is having the nous to get ahead on the scoreboard and stay there. It was always good enough for Munster, for Toulouse and for Leicester and yesterday at the Aviva it was good enough for Ulster.

Rugby may be a team game, but sometimes a couple of outstanding individuals can exert their will to such an extent that they seem worth half a dozen players. Ruan Pienaar for example. He set the tone of the Thomond quarter-final by landing three penalties which were all of the possible rather than the probable variety. And, with Ulster 13-12 ahead early in the second half and struggling, the South African decided that it was time to put the team on his shoulders.

First came a terrific sniping run which set up a period of prolonged pressure which ended with Ulster being awarded a penalty. Pienaar knocked it over like he was placing a ball for a child to chase after at the beach. 16-12. Next the scrumhalf produced a superb box kick into the corner which gave Ulster the platform to turn the screw once more. Another penalty, another clinical piece of execution from the Bloemfontein man. Cometh the hour cometh the man.

Or cometh two men. Because if Pienaar is the calm calculating brain behind Ulster's march to the final, Stephen Ferris is the beating heart and striving soul. Obviously playing through the pain barrier, Ferris had so much strapping on his legs he looked a bit like the Six Million Dollar Man midway through the rebuilding process. But on he ploughed.

Edinburgh were incredibly gallant. Little Gregor Laidlaw's ripping of the ball away from the rampaging Wanneburg a couple of yards from their line was the kind of coup de theatre which made you wonder if their unlikely run would continue. And Inspector John Rebus should be called in to investigate the mystery of how they trailed at half-time after dominating possession and territory.

But Ulster were efficient and they were ruthless. Mistakes were few and far between, the percentages were rigorously calculated and perfectly played and their front row held a decided edge all through, giving us the remarkable sight of an Irish scrum moving forward in a big game.

Ulster have been the Chico Marxes of Irish rugby, the one everyone always thinks of third.

And the fourth province was a spectral presence at the Aviva. That penchant for guerrilla rugby which Michael Bradley developed while trying to maximise scarce resources at Connacht is everywhere evident in Edinburgh's play. He and his new team depart the season with massive credit for their contribution to a competition which has kept us off balance from day one.

Ulster won't care that their semi-final was treated like the Best Supporting Actor award at the Oscars. Nobody will give them a chance in the final and that will suit them down to the ground. They never got enough credit for winning the decider in 1999 and chances are they won't get enough credit for reaching it in 2012.

That's what it's like when you're the perennial afterthought of Irish rugby.

They'll relax today and hear the match in Bordeaux being bigged up as The Real Final. And then they'll start planning the final ambush.

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