Tuesday 16 July 2019

Nightmare of a party with no host

Pro12 money men are desperate for Ulster to do their final duty

Paddy Jackson looked so much more physically robust and self-assured than the jittery young fella who made his Test debut in difficult circumstances in Murrayfield two years ago
Paddy Jackson looked so much more physically robust and self-assured than the jittery young fella who made his Test debut in difficult circumstances in Murrayfield two years ago
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The Heineken Cup semi-finals in 2003 were a classic example of the best laid plans being fed into a paper shredder.

On the Saturday, April 26, Munster went to Toulouse for their fourth European semi-final in a row. In a near-constant drizzle they were beaten by a home team who were able to unload a bench with bazooka-class firepower. The following day a far less-fancied Perpignan came to Lansdowne Road to play Leinster, who had survived a close shave against Biarritz in the quarters. The Catalans did what very few people expected - and won.

The air of depression around HQ that evening was palpable, and it affected a few constituencies. There were a few hungover Munster men still hurting from the previous day - though for some their mood was lightened a bit by Leinster's defeat - while in the home changing room there was devastation at having messed up a home run to the final.

Their depression was matched in its greyness by the ERC employees stumbling about the place. Having earlier in the season designated Dublin as the city for the final - a bold move designed to boost the event itself rather than wait to see who would be in it - they started that semi-final weekend presented by vistas alternately appealing or appalling: an all-Irish final or an all-French one. They got the latter. And suggesting to them that they move it to Tolka Park didn't lighten their mood much.

History repeated itself yesterday at Twickenham where Clermont and Toulon inconveniently made it through to the final. And now the Guinness Pro12 fear a variation on the same theme. If Ulster don't secure a berth on trophy day on May 30 then Ravenhill, the venue for the gig, will be more drafty than roomy.

This is the first season of pre-designated venues. Heretofore it has been decided by a combination of placings on the final table with results in the semi-final. So after three straight seasons where Leinster filled the RDS for them in the final, this is the Pro12 trying to put another building block in the brand by themselves.

They might claim prescience on the issue of Leinster's demise, but they are sweating over the make-up of the final pair. In short, they need Ulster to do their duty.

The nuts and bolts of that may not be secure for another two weeks. Even if Ulster hit the maximum 5-0 on match points against Munster in Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, it could all fall apart the following week. Glasgow, their opponents in the final round, is about the last place they want to go needing to come home with something.

First though, Ulster need to take care of Munster on Saturday. As an appetiser of sorts we took a spin a few miles down the N7 on Wednesday to watch the provinces' A teams in action, well, specifically to check out Tyler Bleyendaal. It was a slightly odd experience. It started out wet and windy at Naas RFC, on a very well maintained pitch, and despite the sun coming out it illustrated the antiseptic nature of provincial A team rugby: two teams with no trophy to play for, getting it on in a half-way house in stud farm country.

The short gap between Munster announcing in May last season that Bleyendaal would be coming to Thomond Park, and him suffering a serious neck injury, summed up their struggle to strengthen their squad. Most have probably forgotten about the New Zealander since then. The good news is that he looked the part for the hour's run he had last week, allowing for the circumstances. And when you add him to the inbound All Black centre Francis Saili, then Munster's midfield should have a competitive look to it next season.

For the moment, though, you would expect them to be humming along, for since January the only thing on their minds has been getting a home semi-final in this competition - and throwing a few quid in a kitty that this time last year was looking a lot healthier thanks to a home quarter-final in the Champions Cup against Toulouse.

Munster have won five from seven games since their European interest ended, though on the performance front the last two victories came from opposite poles. Three weeks ago in Murrayfield they blew Edinburgh off the field with a five-try performance that was slick and controlled. Last weekend, at home to Treviso, they stuttered and staggered to what on paper was a good bonus-point win, but actually was far from that. Treviso were game, but they have just three wins this season because they are not very good, a pale shadow of what they used to be.

Kingspan on Saturday will be sold out and expectant. When they met in Limerick in November, Munster hung on to win by a point, despite being harder hit than their opponents by defections. They will be tooled up this time.

As for Ulster, they have gone through the horrors at various points during the season. It's hard to bracket what we're looking at now in the same time-frame as David Humphreys announcing his departure (last June), the sacking of Mark Anscombe (July) and their penultimate pool match in Champions Cup (January) where they had 60 points put on them by Toulon.

The week after that humiliation they beat Leicester in Belfast. The Tigers were chasing a best qualifier spot that night, and were beaten out the gate. From there Ulster got stuck into the Pro12 and have won six from seven games since then. Over the last two games especially they have looked like men on a mission.

It helps when you have a good number of hands on deck. Aside from the long-term injured Andrew Trimble, and more recently Stuart Olding, and the suspended Nick Williams, Ulster are in good shape. To be unchanged at this stage of the season - as they have been in the last two games, against Connacht and Leinster - is ideal.

Four men in particular have made a difference recently: Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson. Tuohy has had woeful luck on the fitness front in the last two seasons, the most recent of which was needing surgery on a torn thumb ligament in January. When Ulster have him partnering Franco van der Merwe in the second row, then they have a good quotient of grunt.

Henderson adds to that, with a lot more besides. His performance against Leinster last weekend will have pleased Joe Schmidt as much as Neil Doak and Les Kiss. The word on Henderson when he made his Ireland debut three years ago was that his work ethic didn't quite match his talent. It does now. And watching him last week you wondered who was more uncomfortable about his performance: Devin Toner or Peter O'Mahony.

While Henderson was the runaway winner of the man of the match award against Leinster, it was a very successful spin-out too for Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy. The outhalf looked so much more physically robust and self-assured than the jittery young fella who made his Test debut in difficult circumstances in Murrayfield two years ago.

He hasn't quite been in the Tuohy class for injuries, but a dislocated elbow took him out of the Six Nations window altogether, having had concussion issues earlier in the season. If you want to feature in the World Cup in the autumn then now is the time to be fit and firing. It will be a critical couple of weeks for him.

Whatever about the competition at 10, his pal Gilroy has no elbow room on the wing. To his credit this hasn't stopped him looking for space. Tries in his last two games have confirmed what has been a long enough return to form for a player who announced himself in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in Thomond Park three years ago.

The profile of both teams has changed a bit from that seismic afternoon in 2012. The Pro12 will be hoping that Ulster's makeover has been more successful. We'll see on Saturday.

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