Court stakes his Six Nations claim
LAST Friday afternoon, the request came in for an image to go with the preview for the following day's Magners League clash between Ulster and Munster at Ravenhill.
That preview had referenced the home side's expected targeting of the Munster scrum and the suggestion was a shot of Ulster's South African prop BJ Botha -- arguably the most destructive tight-head in world rugby -- but no suitable image could be found to fit the dynamics of the page.
Instead, an appropriately shaped, moody picture of loose-head Tom Court was located and dropped into the vacant slot -- a decision in keeping with Court's recent status of back-up behind Ireland's first-choice props John Hayes, Marcus Horan and, latterly, Cian Healy.
Though not the original intention, the decision to go with Court worked out very well. Botha has the bigger reputation but Court produced a phenomenal performance at Ravenhill on Saturday evening, annihilating his Ireland rival Tony Buckley at scrum time and giving Ulster a critical advantage as they ground out a narrow victory over an under-strength, but wholly committed, Munster outfit.
It was an excellent way for the Australian-born ex-shot putter to start the year and Court looks certain to be a key member of Declan Kidney's squad for the Six Nations campaign.
Court arrived from Australia in the mid-2000s heralded as a long-term solution in a problem position. However, his progression was riddled with obstacles and included injury issues, a couple of seasons in the wilderness of All-Ireland League rugby and an awkward loan deal, with the Pertemps Bees, no less.
Bygones -- for these days Court looks the real deal. He has the crucial ability to cover both sides of the scrum and, while Buckley's discomfiture was disconcerting for the Shannon man's international aspirations, Court's power-show must have provided considerable encouragement for Declan Kidney and his Ireland management team.
It was a bitter night in Belfast, but there was a sense of mutual satisfaction from the respective camps as Ulster secured the victory they needed to keep their Magners League show on the road and Munster, shorn of their mighty international contingent, grabbed a valuable losing bonus point.
Munster went into battle without eight Grand Slam winners and, in those circumstances, coach Tony McGahan can be satisfied with this performance as his predominantly understudy XV very nearly snatched a victory that had looked beyond the bounds of possibility when they trailed 15-0 midway through the first half.
Reserve back-rowers James Coughlan (who coped extremely well with the retreating scrum), Billy Holland and Tommy O'Donnell had big games as did hooker Damien Varley and second-row Donncha Ryan, while captain Mick O'Driscoll showcased his aerial ability at lineouts and restarts.
In the backline, Denis Hurley continued his excellent form with a solid display at full-back, Ian Dowling was lively on the left wing and Lifeimi Mafi and Jean De Villiers looked dangerous on the ball. Paul Warwick was asked to fill Ronan O'Gara's out-half boots but the talented Australian (one of Munster's most consistent performers this season) struggled to impose his authority on proceedings, not helped by the struggling scrum.
His opposite number, Ian Humphreys, mixed the mesmeric with the fitful but he and half-back partner Isaac Boss had the more solid platform to work with. Court aside, it was not a night for outstanding individual displays but Stephen Ferris got through lorry-loads of work in defence, Andrew Trimble was consistently effective and Simon Danielli emphasised his poaching skills with two well-taken tries. Another Irish-qualified Australian caughth the eye in the Ulster ranks as second-row Ed O'Donoghue put in a shift bristling with aggression and athleticism.
Munster made the brighter opening but could not make it pay and it was Ulster who opened the scoring with a Humphreys penalty after 12 minutes. It settled the home side and they went 10 points clear eight minutes later when Paddy Wallace blocked Warwick's chip and Danielli plucked the ball out of the air and scorched down the left touchline for the opening try, confidently converted by Humphreys. Two minutes later, from excellent off-the-top lineout ball from O'Donoghue, Ian Whitten went crashing up the middle.
From the quick recycle, Humphreys hit Trimble, who made the most of a soft tackle effort from De Villiers to cut through and find Danielli for his second try (although there was a suspicion that Trimble's pass may have been a fraction forward). Humphreys missed the conversion but at 15-0 in front of an 11,800 crowd baying for more, it looked ominous for the visitors.
However, it was Munster, with Varley and his lineout jumpers working well, who cranked up the pressure. Warwick missed a difficult penalty from 45m after 25 minutes but Munster were camped in Ulster territory and a great break by Coughlan took the visitors deep into the home 22.
Referee Dudley Smith had an inconsistent evening, appearing particularly ill at ease at scrum time, and it was his decision to award a free kick against Ulster at the set piece, and then a further 10 metres for dissent, that set up Munster's try. Mafi took the ball up aggressively only for Humphreys to rip it out of the New Zealander's grasp. However, when Ryan crashed in to the Ulster out-half the ball squirted free and De Villiers did superbly to pick up the spill and touch down. Warwick made it 15-7 and tacked on a penalty on half-time for 15-10.
Kicking was the attacking gambit of choice in a dour second-half and Ulster seemed intent on closing the game down rather than hammering home their advantage. This was evidenced with 20 minutes to go when Humphreys was replaced by Niall O'Connor (a good young player but an out-half defined by his siege gun boot) and his brief was clearly to pin Munster back.
That conservatism almost backfired as O'Driscoll led his men deep into home territory in search of a winning score at the death but, buttressed by their scrum power, Ulster held firm.
By the final whistle, the temperature was sub-zero, the ground was starting to freeze and Ulster breath-fog filled the sky. The warmth was provided by Court's reminder of the scrum's importance in the post-ELV era. Picture that.
ULSTER -- J Smith; A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace (T Nagusa 52), S Danielli; I Humphreys (N O'Connor 61), I Boss; T Court, N Brady (A Kyriacou 55), B Botha; E O'Donoghue, D Tuohy; S Ferris, W Falloon (TJ Anderson 41), C Henry (capt, Anderson 4-10).
MUNSTER -- D Hurley; D Howlett, L Mafi, J De Villiers, I Dowling; P Warwick, P Stringer; W Du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley (S Archer 70); D Ryan, M O'Driscoll (capt); B Holland, N Ronan (T O'Donnell 25), J Coughlan (P O'Mahony 70).
REF -- D Phillips (Ireland)