Thursday 22 August 2019

George Hook: Job done – but new Blues boss must sort out pack

Leinster's second trophy in a week was won with a workmanlike display rather than the exciting running rugby that is the trademark of Joe Schmidt's side. For the second week in a row, Leinster lost the territorial battle, but once again the opponents could not convert possession into points.

They were crucially aided by the refereeing of John Lacey of Munster. The young referee, in his first big game, was clearly nervous and handed out a large number of penalties which went very much Leinster's way in the early part of the game. Ulster looked bemused at many of the decisions and there was a sense that Lacey would decide this game.

He should have yellow-carded Chris Henry for kicking the ball away at a ruck and Isa Nacewa was also lucky to escape for a high tackle when an Ulster try was a real possibility. Lacey is a promising referee and will recover from this, but he would have been the topic of conversation in the cars heading north afterwards.

The Leinster three-quarters ran pretty patterns, but never really threatened to score a try and were fairly comfortably shepherded by Ulster. The two tries came from back-row forwards Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, which were set up by massive touch-finds close to the line by Jonny Sexton.

While Sexton's line kicking was impeccable, his judgment was at times faulty, particularly with his restarts in the second half. He constantly kicked long, allowing the Ulster catcher plenty of time to gain 40 yards downfield aided by the elements.

Schmidt suggested that his team had spent all week practising defence rather than attack. Given Ulster's fallibility with the ball in hand, the defensive structures were hardly tested. Ulster made it easy for their opponents with a succession of poor tactical decisions. Ruan Pienaar did most of the kicking when the game required control from fly-half. This season Paddy Jackson has never shown that he can kick to pin teams deep in their own half.

At half-time, Ulster were really in with a shout as they were to be the beneficiaries of a strong breeze in the second half. Sadly, they never committed to one strategy, as kicking for position and running wide were constantly intermixed. Their best period was in the third quarter when they committed almost entirely to a kicking game from Pienaar.

After a disastrous first 15 minutes, Ulster forced their way into a strong position five metres from the Leinster line and opted for consecutive scrums in an attempt to win a penalty try.

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At the third time of asking Mike Ross (below) drove Tom Court into a difficult position, but Ulster succeeded in getting the ball to the feet of No 8 Nick Williams. Leinster won the turnover and cleared to touch, although it seemed certain the ball was still in the scrum and the referee should have awarded a penalty to Ulster. It may have been the turning point.

Substitutions in rugby union are invariably made in the closing minutes and only a fraction of the personnel changes made during a game have a meaningful effect on the result.

It is impossible to control a kicking game from scrum-half and Pienaar should have been moved to No 10 at half-time to use the breeze and Paul Marshall would have posed a threat at scrum-half. Mark Anscombe was guilty of falling between two tactical stools.

Meanwhile, Schmidt took a needless risk late on in substituting both props. At that point, Ulster needed a converted try to win and had they won a scrum close to the line, John Afoa, Rory Best, and Court, would have minced Jack McGrath and Jamie Hagan and perhaps won the penalty try denied them in the first half.

ELECTRIC

The atmosphere was electric and the rival fans were in full voice, but the contest deserved a bigger stage and while one understands the reasons, it was wrong that the best team in the qualifying were forced to concede home advantage.

The Aviva was denied because, at the time the decision was made, there was still the possibility of a lack-lustre pairing in the final.

Meanwhile Casement Park in Belfast lay idle. An imaginative decision could have led to an economic boon to the city, a triumph for community relations and, perhaps, an Ulster win.

It would have been worth the entrance money to watch Ulster's rugby faithful troop through Andersonstown to a ground named after a gun-runner from 1916.

Next year will see a new coach at the RDS. His first task will be to mould a pack that can compete with the best. Leinster cannot continue to defy the odds with a minority of territory and possession.

Irish Independent

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