Sport Rugby

Sunday 19 November 2017

Ulster clear pathway to knock-out stages but plodding performers fail to convince

More dynamism up front is needed to revive '99 heroics, says Peter Bills

Peter Bills

Ulster haven't won the Heineken Cup since 1999, Bath 12 months earlier than that. The meeting of one-time champions in any sport can be electric, but this was more Joe Bugner against James 'Bonecrusher' Smith when Bugner was 48 and both were long past their prime. There were some blows thrown and a couple of players were sanctioned. But it didn't amount to that much.

Even if Ulster emerge as winners of Pool 4, which now looks possible after two wins in a week against Bath, I doubt very much whether the heavyweight contenders in the competition will be losing a lot of sleep at the possibility of meeting the men from the north in a possible quarter-final.

Of course, this is a radically different Ulster side to the one that reached the 1999 final in Dublin and beat French club Colomiers. Ulster, through the financial support of the IRFU, have gone down the route of overseas recruitment, turning Ravenhill into a suburb of Bloemfontein.

The street-cred abilities of South Africans like Johan Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Pedrie Wannenburg, BJ Botha and Robbie Diack was enough to usher Ulster to a second straight win over the one-time kings of English rugby.

Ulster could even afford to start the match half asleep, giving away the softest of tries -- after just 34 seconds, and they trailed 8-0 after only eight minutes.

This was similar to last week at Ravenhill when Ulster's mistakes gifted Bath a 15-3 lead before they turned the game around.

But it says much about both Bath and Ulster that one can't take advantage of such generosity and the other lacks sufficient concentration and discipline not to concede so many simple scores.

The jury has to be out on the entire Ulster South African issue. It is true youngsters such as centre Nevin Spence, who scored a fine try yesterday (but then got himself sin-binned at a crucial time), may learn much from the attitude of the ex-Springboks.

But does any team need five of them to send that message?

And are Ulster really ready to confront the likes of Munster, Leinster, Toulon or Toulouse and scare the living daylights out of them? Perhaps not.

These days, Bath are another club which appears to pay people exceptionally well, which presumably persuaded a player like Lewis Moody to forsake his lifelong devotion to Leicester and transfer allegiances to the Tigers' hated enemy.

But, as things stand, it doesn't look as though Bath's new owner is getting value for money. He may have Ian McGeechan in his coach's box and the England captain in his team. But the sum of the parts somehow rarely adds up to the whole for Bath these days, and it hasn't done so for some years now.

As for Ulster, these two wins against the English West Country club have certainly opened up the road to the quarter-finals. Their next game is against the notoriously erratic Biarritz at Ravenhill on the weekend of January 15.

If they win that one, and remember the French traditionally travel about as well as a bag of mussels on a hot day, then only the Italian club Aironi would remain for the Ulstermen.

Maximum points from that match in Italy would mean no one could catch Brian McLaughlin's men.

That is all ahead of Ulster in the new year. But you sense they somehow have to inject more pace and dynamism into their game up front.

There is, in some cases, an unmistakeable sense of plodding performers in the white shirt, yet I guess that goes with the territory when both Muller and Botha are both 30, and Wannenburg will join them at that landmark in a couple of weeks' time. These are no spring chickens and they have considerable mileage on the clock.

Ulster rightly celebrated two hard-fought, gutsy wins in the week. They were good enough to end Bath's European aspirations.

But much, much more is needed from Ulster if memories of 1999 are truly to be revived.

Sunday Independent

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