Saturday 21 September 2019

Best to rescue for off-colour Ulster

Ulster 16 Cardiff 12

John Cooney kicks a second-half penalty at Kingspan Stadium yesterday. Photo: Oliver McVeigh
John Cooney kicks a second-half penalty at Kingspan Stadium yesterday. Photo: Oliver McVeigh

The idea of a bench in modern rugby is that the lads sitting on it should make a positive impact on the game when they get their chance. And so it was here. Well, it was for Rory Best anyway. His team were still trailing from the half-time score of 12-10 when he came on, and in the preceding 10 minutes Ulster had managed to lose two lineouts in very good attacking positions.

It helped that Cardiff had just lost second-row Seb Davies to the bin for taking out Ross Kane off the ball. That decision drove coach John Mulvihill mad.

Rory Best of Ulster is tackled by Josh Turnbull of Cardiff Blues. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Rory Best of Ulster is tackled by Josh Turnbull of Cardiff Blues. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

"Clearly we weren't happy with the way the game was officiated and I'm at a stage where I'm sick of it," he said. "First three games I've spoken to the referees' boss - he's told me on email and on my phone that if the game was officiated properly we would have won the first three games. Now there are big stakes in rugby and people lose jobs and players lose their roles and it has to be better."

Darts are not necessarily Best's go-to discipline but that phase certainly calmed down after he came on. And in the endgame, with Cardiff on the charge again and battering away in the Ulster 22, it was Best who came up with the steal to make the game safe.

Had they lost, however, Ulster could only have blamed themselves. Their pack as usual was underwhelming and a few other bits were dodgy as well. The man of the match award had to go to a home player but while John Cooney was flawless off the tee, his was no match-winning performance. A few of his box-kicks left the lid open and against a willing, adventurous team like Cardiff that was not what he wanted.

When a team are floating around mid-table in their conference and on their eighth coach in seven years, you'd be forgiven for thinking they have targets strapped to their back. So if the Ulster faithful rocked up to the Kingspan on a damp but decent afternoon for rugby expecting shooting practice for the home boys, they were disabused of that idea soon enough.

1 December 2018; Johnny McPhillips of Ulster is tackled by Rhys Carré, left, and Dillon Lewis of Cardiff Blues during the Guinness PRO14 Round 10 match between Ulster and Cardiff Blues at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
1 December 2018; Johnny McPhillips of Ulster is tackled by Rhys Carré, left, and Dillon Lewis of Cardiff Blues during the Guinness PRO14 Round 10 match between Ulster and Cardiff Blues at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Yes, Cooney had Ulster out of the traps inside two minutes with a perfectly-struck penalty but it didn't knock a feather out of Mulvihill's side. Soon enough it became apparent they were far more efficient than Ulster in getting wide and gaining ground. That Ulster set their forwards pods so close to the breakdown did them no favours.

Moreover when they went out the back of those pods they were being levelled behind the gain line by spot tackles which you'd imagine were the fruit of labour spent over laptops in the week leading up to this. Well worth the effort.

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So no surprise, then, when Matthew Morgan got over in the corner after steady, organised approach work, facilitated by a pack that looked more physically capable than the home eight.

Ulster did well to regain the lead on 14 minutes but significantly it came from opportunism rather than structure. Marcell Coetzee snaffled a loose ball, Stuart McCloskey carried into the Cardiff 22 and while his offload came off the shin of Kieran Treadwell, the second-row showed lovely skill in gathering and getting over the line for Cooney to add the points and a 10-5 lead.

Given the grunt and structure available to Cardiff it never looked like lasting. So when the Blues got the chance to maul from close-in towards the end of the half they used it to deposit Kris Dacey safely over the line, which with Jarrod Evans's conversion put the away side 12-10 in front going to the changing room.

The second half was a drag given the number of stoppages but the home fans - who had seen Billy Burns stay off after a HIA, which had followed a leg injury - were relieved when Cooney kicked them into the lead on 59 minutes after Cardiff were offside in their 22. Still no sign of comfort though. A combination between Matthew Morgan and Tomos Williams looked likely to swing the game back to the Blues in the final quarter but the replacement knocked the ball on.

Another Cooney strike on 68 minutes left Cardiff needing a try to save themselves. They looked capable of getting it until Best stuck his mitts in at exactly the right time.

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