Monday 20 November 2017

Keeping Pienaar was Ulster's move of season

Leicester Tigers 19 Ulster 22

Johann Muller, Ulster, takes the ball in a lineout
Johann Muller, Ulster, takes the ball in a lineout
The imperious Ruan Pienaar scored all of Ulster's points
Chris Henry, Ulster, in action against Leicester Tigers
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ulster's supporters partied like it was 1999. Those halcyon days have been handed on down like a dog-eared script; it is time to forge new tales of grandeur.

England's east midlands is an unusual place to unearth a sprinkling of Hollywood.

Ruan Pienaar delivered a performance worthy of a statuette, scoring all of Ulster's points and generally being the sine qua non of the northerners' charge to a first home quarter-final since they last won this thing in the last century.

However, as he collected his sporting Oscar -- the man of the match award -- he paid obligatory mention to the rest of the cast and crew of this formidably dogged outfit.

For, without the team's extraordinary efforts in the tight, and some wonderful contributions alongside him in the back-line, Ulster would be as nothing in relation to the European elite.

Now they are established; and, as much as one can carp that this was not a Leicester team of old, one could also aver that this is not an Ulster team of old, one that may have hitherto crumbled in the cauldron of a typically fiery fiefdom.

At 6-0, crumbling in set-piece and jittery in delivery of their austere, necessarily limited game plan, Ulster struggled early on but they were the ones who ran to the dressing-rooms at half-time, emboldened by a flattering 9-9 scoreline.

But then, 10 points within as many minutes from the home side, propelled by Toby Flood's acute mind and the spirit of a still raging superpower, if latterly a severely weakened one, flung Ulster to the canvas.

The response had to be immediate; it was. Pienaar sparked it; the chargedown in rugby may seem like a fluke, or at best a punishment of an opponent's tardiness. But the Springbok has acquired it as an artform in itself; like a predator eyeing up his prey on the high veldt, he regards it as a Gaelic footballer might his block; it is a true skill.

It is this steely single-mindedness that also saw him land all six of his kicks at goal, even though two of them were within his own half of what is a claustrophobic venue. At one stage, referee Nigel Owens ushered him back a couple of metres; it mattered little to the unruffled scrum-half.

Never mind Leinster holding on to Sean O'Brien; the Northerners' rebuff of Toulon's advances for their scrum-half may be the transfer story of the season.

Ulster's director of rugby David Humphreys' persuasive -- financial and emotional -- commitment to Pienaar continues to be repaid in spades.

Truly, he is brushed by greatness and his team cannot hope to challenge for this trophy without his help. Without a platform, however, he would never be in a position to provide it.

"We're a team and the fact is that he can't kick goals if we don't put him at the right end of the park," noted head coach Mark Anscombe, who will surely now be rewarded with the new contract he deserves.

"He's a quality player, as they had quality players, and quality players add the icing to the cake. But you've got to have the others doing their job first for them to do it. It's not about one person and one person winning the game for us -- it's a team effort."

This was true, from Chris Henry's astonishing 20-plus tackle haul to the burgeoning class of Luke Marshall that has surely catapulted him into favouritism for the No 12 jersey against Italy in two weeks' time, while Paddy Jackson's kicking game from the hand was deadly accurate.

Dan Tuohy provided another outstanding display in the tight and nothing typified the Ulster performance more than the pack, who began the game by being penalised twice in the opening quarter but ended it by triumphantly, defiantly frogmarching their enemy out the gates.

Throughout it all, though, -- and amidst all the bravery and doughty resistance this was a typical cup tie that overflowed with errors -- Pienaar shone like a beacon. His compatriot Johann Muller offered an insight into Pienaar's prowess.

"It seems like it's becoming every week that he scores all the points," the inestimably important captain beamed.

"I came with him to the field to do kicking practice yesterday and he didn't miss one all day, which is outstanding.

"He kicked them from 60-62 metres and from a captain's point of view it gives you a lot of confidence that when you get a penalty you don't have to look at him -- you just know he's going to go 'Look, I'm going to have a shot at this'.

"A huge amount of credit to him. It doesn't just happen automatically. Ruan puts a huge amount of hard work in. He's always the last off the pitch, he puts hours and hours of kicking in."

Few teams would have coped with that second wave of Leicester pressure after the break; at 19-9, backed up by the certainty of a 25-game unbeaten streak in Heineken Cup combat here, the grip seemed theirs to tighten.

Instead, it was prised open by Ulster, Pienaar's try coming just eight minutes after ex-Leinster man Niall Morris had pounced on Flood's intelligent tramline grubber for Leicester's try.

"Well if you don't get them back, time runs out and you lose, so we had to," Anscombe reasoned, not unreasonably. His side only led for the first time after 70 minutes.

"We showed a lot of character to hang in there when we weren't playing perfectly. We showed a lot of resistance and resilience to hang in there and keep our discipline and not allow them to get some penalties."

Now they face another test of their renewed vigour; a rematch with a Saracens side who tamed them at the same stage of the competition last term. Only this time, Ulster will be the hosts.

SUCCESS

"There was only one team in that game and it certainly wasn't us," reflected Anscombe. "But this time we've got them at home. We've got to enjoy this and enjoy our success. This the first time Ulster have ever done six out of six, so we've got to enjoy that.

"The boys should have a few beers tonight and reflect on what they've done. They now break for the international window and some guys can be proud of what they have achieved.

"But we've got to keep our feet firmly on the ground. We haven't done anything yet."

Heady heights for Ulster perhaps but, even as they celebrate another red-letter day, there is a nagging urgency amongst the province.

One which acknowledges that, for all their emergence as a force to be reckoned with, they have yet to hoist a trophy above their broad shoulders.

The reality of this recent inability to convert expectancy into winning will guard any onslaught of self-congratulation.

Leicester -- M Tait (S Hamilton 39); N Morris, M Smith (O Williams 80), A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood (c), B Youngs; M Ayerza, T Youngs (R Hawkins 69), D Cole, E Slater, G Kitchener, J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane (S Mafi 20).

Ulster -- J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black (T Court 56), R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (c), D Tuohy (I Henderson 65), R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams (R Diack 56).

Ref -- N Owens (WRU)

Irish Independent

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