Rain descends on Ulster's parade at Ravenhill
We should have known this would happen. A week after Ulster tick every box in their demolition of Scarlets, in beautiful conditions and at top speed, the heavens open in Belfast when they’re next up for assessment.
Forget last season and Ulster’s double over Ireland’s best province, we wanted a decent stage to be informed and entertained. Ulster Rugby should petition Liz Truss — if she survives to Halloween — to throw another bundle of cash in the kitty: a roof for Ravenhill.
Bizarrely, however, everyone got something to take away from a truly awful night: Andy Farrell, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster on their last, long lap as an item together, and Dan McFarland.
For the Ireland coach, there was a big play at the end of the game from Will Connors that helped Leinster over the line. Back row is hardly an area of concern for Farrell, but when Connors burst onto the Test scene in late 2020, he featured prominently in nine games for Ireland before the season finished. Chop tackling was his stock in trade. When Leinster needed him to add something to that on Friday night, he chopped and shifted John Andrew to halt Ulster’s momentum, allowing them to close out the game.
There was other stuff for Farrell, too. He will hardly have been surprised by the performance of Robbie Henshaw when it was put up to him. Indeed, the one racing certainty aside from the incoming rain was the forthcoming statement from the Lion.
There has been a fair bit of talk in the past week over the prospect — slim enough, we think — of John Cooney ending up in a Scotland shirt. It throws up the image of a Cooney/Ben Healy combination at half-back in navy blue, albeit a very long shot. But if Cooney feels unloved by Ireland, where himself and boss hog Johnny Sexton never looked a likely pairing, then the case of Stuart McCloskey is more pressing.
The centre may find himself in a congested area of Farrell’s field, but it doesn’t take a series of seismic events for that to change. Like Bundee Aki’s suspension, for example. There are two strands to this: Aki’s recidivism is clearly an issue, and McCloskey offers a string Bundee doesn’t have on his bow. Reading the tea leaves, Henshaw resolved to be the best inside centre on view on Friday night, but that wasn’t really necessary. We already know that. Even though McCloskey was overshadowed, that doesn’t reduce his value either.
Equally, Farrell will be aware of the Ryan Baird debate, now open to the public. The motion is simply this: how best to use this talented athlete? Baird gave an open, lengthy and interesting interview a few weeks back to our colleague Ruaidhri O’Connor, who came away from the experience with a truckload of quotes to transcribe and the idea that player interaction in the modern era don’t all have to be coercive and dull.
It took place on neutral territory. Baird brought neither gumshield nor headgear and never employed a hand off. He said that aggression is not something that bubbles up inside him when he hears the bell sound, so he has to figure a way to summon it at appropriate moments.
This is not immediately compatible with playing number six, where his athleticism is easiest employed. If you picked two positions on the field where a surfeit of the canine quota are high on the job spec, then tighthead prop and number six would top your list. To admit in public that you have to drill down to mine what to others comes naturally is to take on extra weight.
As it happens, Michael Ala’alatoa was happy to have just that commodity in bulk on those scrums when he had Jason Jenkins on the left cheek of his backside and Baird on the right. Cullen is convinced Jenkins can bring the sheer mass to the kind of arguments Leinster have lost in recent seasons, but we’ll have to wait until days like Racing in December and the Bulls, in Loftus, away in the distance of next April, to draw conclusions on that.
You’d wish Leinster were heading to Pretoria next week. Watching the likes of Walt Steenkamp, Marcel Coetzee and Marco van Staden bully Connacht off the field raised questions of what kind of contest we’ll get when the two top teams in the competition go toe to toe.
Where will Ulster be by then? Well, if Aaron Sexton is still in their mix, he’ll have learned a lot about rugby life in the intervening months. McFarland has invested some faith in a big man with a blistering turn of speed, but it’s currently at a cost. A rush of blood early doors on Friday night saw him take a quick lineout that put his side in trouble. It cost them points. Then, late in the day, he was undone over the line by Charlie Ngatai, simply because he forgot to follow the try-scorer’s code of swapping the ball to the arm furthest away from the incoming tackle.
In the context of the game, it was a critical error, for it would have topped off Ulster’s resolve in the second half, having spent the first period coming second on everything. They have an immediate time advantage now on Ospreys, who were at home to Glasgow yesterday afternoon, on top of home venue, on Saturday night, after which they will expect to be three wins from four.
It remains to be seen if Jacob Stockdale is a part of that, though. His successful return before another ankle injury on Friday night pulled back the curtain on what would be a three-ball you’d happily bring to any Test match: Stockdale, Mack Hansen and James Lowe. Having one of those coming off the bench would give any coach a restful night. Lowe’s calf is still a few weeks away from being right, so who knows what Farrell will have available when the November series unfolds. It would be good to have all hands on deck.