Saturday 17 March 2018

Ulster have risen to the challenge of improving on last season

Jim Glennon

Mark Ainscombe's side are equipped to contend again, says Jim Glennon

Ulster's hard-earned but thoroughly deserved victory in Glasgow on Friday night could well turn out to be hugely important come season's end. Pool rivals Northampton's loss to Castres in France sets the pool up nicely for the back-to-back December showdown; Ulster will relish their trip to Franklin's Gardens with an advantage, however slight, over their English rivals.

The unbeaten northerners have been going about their business in a typically understated manner, but already there are sufficient indicators to suggest that they possess the components essential for a sustained assault on both competitions.

Last season's beaten European finalists have managed not merely to sustain that momentum but to build on it. The return of fullback Jarred Payne from injury and winger Tommy Bowe from the Ospreys has bolstered their three-quarter line immeasurably and Paddy Jackson is showing signs of maturing into an outhalf of the quality required to compete at the highest level. Jackson, controversially unavailable for the ill-fated New Zealand international series in June, has clearly benefited from his summer in Belfast. Inside him, Springbok scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, now a proven world-class player, is the fulcrum of the entire operation.

The conditions in Glasgow were by no means conducive to a display of their full repertoire, but shouldn't be blamed either for a somewhat lacklustre Ulster performance, particularly in the opening half. Not only did Bowe and Payne at times demonstrate an uncharacteristic casualness which would have been more ruthlessly exposed by an opposition of better quality, but the scrum, the foundation for so much of their progress over the last 12 months, was subjected to a rigorous examination from an injury-weakened home eight.

Ulster, having taken their half-time 6-3 lead in the 28th minute with a second Jackson penalty, were content to protect it and force the home team to chase it, a challenge beyond them.

The second half saw an improvement. The scrum, while by no means dominant, withstood the pressure more effectively, the quality of possession from their lineout was cleaner and the back-row of Iain Henderson, Alan Henry and Nick Williams asserted themselves to more telling effect at the breakdown.

Williams, whose ball-carrying has been such a feature of their season to date, carried on just three occasions in the opening half, but he didn't need to reach his normal levels of service to become a major influence in the second.

To a greater extent than with Payne and Bowe in the backline, the acquisition of Williams has provided the pack with a vital extra dimension. In addition to his spectacular ball-carrying exploits, which have rapidly made him a firm favourite with the Ravenhill regulars, his outstanding general work rate -- of a quality which is worlds apart from anything shown in his largely unproductive period with Munster -- is particularly invaluable in the light of the introduction of the highly-promising Henderson to the demands of top-level rugby on a weekly basis. In turn, the quality of the youngster's performances have been a bonus.

All in all, Ulster did what they had to do, no more and no less. A decidedly second-gear performance only had to shift into third to deal comfortably with a spirited but sub-standard challenge from a squad still feeling the effects of their energy-sapping losing effort at Northampton last Sunday.

Coach Mark Ainscombe was in a position to introduce five of his subs over the closing ten minutes. In contrast, Gregor Townsend had to dip into his reserves as early as the 36th and 46th minutes and had used no fewer than five from his bench before Ulster's substitution process had even started. Nor was it simply an issue of numbers -- the quality at Ainscombe's disposal was markedly superior too.

Eight wins from eight in both competitions is a comfortable vantage point from which to reflect on the opening phase of their season. Unlikely finalists last season perhaps, but they haven't gone away, and have no intention of doing so.

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