Thursday 23 November 2017

Inconsistent Ulster have no excuse for travel sickness

Anscombe's men failing to do justice to vast talent pool -- while Leinster's young guns keep hitting new heights

Ulster's Ruan Pienaar shows his disappointment after the game
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar shows his disappointment after the game
Jordi Murphy
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The challenge for Ulster was to prove they deserve to be ranked up there alongside Leinster and Munster in terms of consistency.

In almost every respect, Ulster came up short and failed the festive test badly. No doubt they will come out firing against Munster, but doing so in front of the Friday night Ravenhill faithful alone is just not good enough for a province that rightly aims to be the best.

And therein lies the rub. Ulster should be at the very top of the Irish tree, yet despite great strides being made under Mark Anscombe and Brian McLaughlin before him, there is still too much of an a la carte, laissez faire approach to the collective level of performance.

Much like the little girl in the television ad, "when they are good they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid". On Saturday at the RDS, they were pretty close to horrid.

That is just not good enough. Trawl through the squad and there is a depth of talent few teams in Europe -- never mind this island -- possess. The game in the schools is strong, so the system is in place whereby Ulster should compete consistently at the very top.

POTENCY

In Belfast on Friday night, you have in the away corner a limited squad playing close to the maximum of that limited ability. We can criticise Munster all we want for lacking flair and panache -- potency, too -- but when it comes to giving their all in every match, coach Rob Penney can have few complaints.

In fairness to Anscombe, he hasn't held back in criticising his team and the clearly unacceptable level of their performance. What I find particularly galling is that a group of talented individuals can blow so hot and so cold so regularly mid-match.

Putting it down to the absence of experienced pivotal players is no justification; whether through injury or 'player protection', one man's absence is another's opportunity.

To that end, Leinster's young guns again delivered in spades on Saturday. Jordi Murphy was awarded man of the match and with good reason. The former Blackrock schools No 8 is nowhere near as dynamic as Jamie Heaslip just yet (how could he be?), but when it comes to getting down, getting dirty and taking the game to the opposition physically, he's already up there with the very best.

Although of similar physique, he's slightly different in playing style to Sean O'Brien but alongside the equally impressive Rhys Ruddock, there was a discernible style and substance to a particularly effective back-row at the RDS.

This island has long been blessed with great back-row forwards. The challenge is in getting the mix, the balance and the chemistry right, but when O'Brien recovers, the Ruddock/ O'Brien/Murphy combination is sure to be in Matt O'Connor's future plans again.

And lest anyone lose the run of themselves given Murphy's big show coinciding with Heaslip's contract negotiations, be clear on one thing: we can't afford to lose a player of that status unless the player himself has made up his mind and wants away. We need both outstanding Leinster No 8s plying their trade here.

There were others that impressed too, with former St Michael's out-half/wing Noel Reid proving alongside ex-Blackrock underage star Brendan Macken that he has what it takes to make a real go of it at inside-centre. Reid has been every bit as impressive as Murphy of late.

But the back-row and midfield were able to make their mark only because, once again, we were given a substantial demonstration of the front-row talent coming through the underage, academy, club and 'A' team systems.

Jack O'Connell (23), Jack McGrath (24), and Marty Moore (22) were every bit as central to the emphatic win as the breakaway unit earning the greater plaudits behind.

Joe Schmidt's heart will have skipped a few beats upon O'Brien's departure, with the Tullow man central to Ireland's hopes in the Six Nations.

But Schmidt must be impressed with the progress and impact being made by Luke Fitzgerald, specifically on the left wing where, on form -- and with Simon Zebo still injured -- the Leinster man must be in pole position for the Six Nations opener .

Munster's Keith Earls is in equally impressive form, but significantly that is on the right, where he's most at ease. If Tommy Bowe is available that should be an either/or call, but with Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble at Schmidt's disposal, the new main man is spoiled for choice on either flank.

In Limerick, it was a typically feisty affair in typically horrendous December conditions.

Nothing flash, just Munster cutting their cloth and employing a limited but appropriate modus operandi. Another tour de force from Reds out-half JJ Hanrahan and a brilliant team try touched down by Dave Heffernan for Connacht were the highlights.

It would be remiss not to mention the impact of James Cronin (23), John Ryan (25) and Stephen Archer (25) plus hooker Niall Scannell (21) in the absence of Mike Sherry, Damien Varley and Duncan Casey.

Honourable mention too of the ever reliable old dog for the hard road in James Coughlan, who was every bit as effective for Munster as was Murphy for Leinster. Two No 8s producing the perfect 10.

What price loyalty as Welsh ponder offer to jump ship?

It is anything but the season of peace and goodwill at the ERC headquarters in Huguenot House.

In the latest development, each of the Welsh Regions has been offered a staggering £4m a season (by BT) to quit the Pro12, abandoning the Celtic connection to join the English clubs in an extended Anglo-Welsh League.

The big attraction for the regions -- and the WRU -- is the financial clout to stem the flow of Welsh players leaving the Principality.

Significantly, the man responsible for creating the regions in the first place, David Moffett, has rowed in, saying: "I don't see any option other than to break away and make a fresh start in the best interest of Welsh rugby as a whole."

Break away or die a slow death is his fundamental message.

The real worry here has to be the clear indication that the English, French and Welsh unions are openly stating the need to fight their own corner -- making the very word 'union' a bit of a misnomer.

The bottom line is a professional structure close to tatters. Those who think this an administrative blip that will sort itself out, had better think again. We are back on the precipice.

Far from a rising tide lifting all boats, this rising BT tide could be about to sink the Irish, Scots and Italian vessels out of sight.

Hard to believe but the best competition ever to happen to the professional game could in fact be the root of its demise. Talk about the game shooting itself in both feet.

Either way it's looking more and more like the law of the jungle and each one looking after number one.

And all this happening in a game that has long prided itself on honesty and loyalty. What price loyalty now?

Schmidt effect has put bums on seats

Isn't it amazing the difference one heroic, albeit losing performance, in 2013 makes.

Already the 'sold out' signs have gone up at the Aviva for all three Six Nations games while the team that finished joint last (with France) on one win from five is deemed to be neck and neck with England to lift the 2014 title outright.

Dare I suggest one other likely reason for this mad-hatter optimism? The name's Schmidt ... Joe Schmidt.

Irish Independent

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