Sport Rugby

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Neil Francis: Ulster's selection gamble may prove fatal as Glasgow look destined for PRO12

Ulster still have a chance of making the final, but they have made it more difficult for themselves

'Doak will say that he had very little choice other than to make this gambit'
'Doak will say that he had very little choice other than to make this gambit'
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Ulster's conundrum leading up to this match against Glasgow - and it was going to be a competition of ideas - was that no matter what they did, it would never see them out with the right result.

Playing poker with selection is sometimes the result of the straitjacket on a mounting injury situation. What are the good reasons for sending a near full-strength side to Glasgow while you have to guess what might happen with results on a crazy last day?

If you could guess it and you thought that Munster in Thomond would have been a better bet than Glasgow in Scotstoun then you should have sent your full-strength side. If you were happy to face Glasgow again, then send your seconds in.

If Ulster had shown a little bit more resilience in the last quarter yesterday they might have been happier to go to Thomond, where they have been in very recent times uncomfortably competitive and awkwardly resilient against a Munster side who have become accustomed to coming second best at the breakdown when they play their northern cousins.

Either way Ulster decided that they would be travelling to their semi-final, and they will tell you - not without much conviction - that it doesn't matter who they play, they will be ready for them. The second part of the conundrum that Ulster found themselves in is knowing that the final will be played in Kingspan Park at the end of the month. This always seems to place added pressure on a side when they know that the final will be played in their own back yard.

The difficulty is that with their eyes on the prize, they fall down on the journey.

Ulster head back to Scotstoun next Friday and they do so on the back of a second half where they would wish they would have a second chance.

Sometimes when a home team with much to play for realise that their opposition for that week is only putting out a seconds side it does diminish the competitive mentality for that game and so Glasgow, particularly in the first half, looked like a side that had already decided that the result was a foregone conclusion and played softly and without purpose.

The first half was a game of butcher's chess and the home side didn't quite cut it in terms of a mix between intelligence and belligerence. The game fell into a patch of inertia and it looked like it would be a low-scoring game for the full 80 despite the heavy influence of a strong wind.

You could always see that Glasgow offered a broader range of vision but they just couldn't get hold of the damn ball and Ulster played with great character at that stage of the game. They were marvellously competitive at the breakdown and played the ball into the right areas of the game.

Ulster surprised themselves by going ahead in the 28th minute. Chris Henry, who is slowly working his way back into the Irish squad, got over from a lineout maul and Ian Humphreys judged his conversion beautifully, sending the ball out right and letting the wind carry it back in again. At that stage there was no sign of a Glasgow bonus-point victory despite the strengthening wind. The rain also would give the visitors hope as the Glasgow error count began to mount.

But Glasgow, stirred by impatience more than anything else, began to embrace risk and they played their natural game and unpicked Ulster, who up until 25 minutes before the end looked pretty composed.

Stuart Hogg, who has had disciplinary and opinion-related difficulties with Glasgow management, demonstrated his value to the franchise and he scored a brilliant try with a well-measured chip and gather. If you are going to play an open game it certainly helps if your full-back has gas and Hogg burned the Edinburgh-bound Mark Allen for fun in the chase.

Glasgow at this stage had their spurs on and they went after a target, which scarcely seemed likely for nearly three-quarters of the game. With Andrew Warwick in the bin Ulster's woes were compounded, as they had to rearrange their scrum.

From a purist's point of view it was heartening to see Glasgow forego five minutes of pushing and mullocking at scrum time in the hope of a penalty try when the likelihood after five or six minutes of this ploy was that the aggressor would eventually give away a penalty and Ulster would survive.

Glasgow, off the cuff, did a tap and go and Ulster conceded a really tired try to Finn Russell as they got their inside call badly wrong from inexperience. Russell got another, and it would only be a matter of time before Richie Vernon got the fourth try, again taking a not hugely impressive line to beat a moribund Ulster line.

The gambit has failed. Ulster looked ragged and dispirited by the end and it is a huge ask to put their starters in for next week - many of whom belatedly came on in the last few minutes - and ask them to turn around the spiritual tide which was running through this fixture.

It won't matter in Glasgow's heads what was facing them, they know that they have Ulster's number and the last 25 minutes of this game will speak volumes next Friday.

The portals of discovery when you are a coach learning your trade are built on matches of this calibre and Doak will say that he had very little choice other than to make this gambit, and that he did try and send on the cavalry to shore up the inevitable, but they should have been there from the start.

Ulster still have a real chance next week and I suspect that their performance will be a whole heap more than a feckless act of defiance.

They will have Ruan Pienaar and the in-form Paddy Jackson from the start and their pack will perform much better and they will probably spend a little bit more attention trying to negate the concussive power of Josh Strauss. This will have to be their best performance of the season.

They approach it from a position of weakness but I will not take any bet against them winning. That said, Glasgow are the best side in the competition and it is a dangerous thing to say it - their name seems to be written on the cup.

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