Saturday 20 January 2018

Ulster stars primed for lead role in Six Nations assault

Anscombe's heroes best placed of Irish teams to secure Heineken Cup success

Dan Tuohy, Ulster, prepares to engage in a tackle with Jamie Gibson, Leicester Tigers. Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
Dan Tuohy, Ulster, prepares to engage in a tackle with Jamie Gibson, Leicester Tigers. Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We came up one win short of a fourth 'Green sweep' in six attempts, but we can still bask in the glory of another fantastic Heineken Cup weekend for Irish rugby.

The lunacy of the near-certain implosion of this extraordinary competition is almost beyond comprehension. And given the central role of the English, I will start with that spellbinding Leicester v Ulster game.

Think of the great, great games in this great, great competition down through the years and the Anglo-Irish encounters stand out a mile.

To think, as in 1999, the English involvement is already gone for next season and God only knows when, if ever, they will return beyond that. The very thought is depressing in the extreme.

But for now, let us leave the future of the tournament to one side and wallow in the magnificence of another stunning series of games. What transpired at Welford Road was another epic as the multi-talented, multi-faceted Ulster we all know exists turned up - and how.

As I suggested in advance that this would be a landmark match in Ulster's development towards superpowerdom and suffice to say, Mark Anscombe's brilliantly prepared squad passed that test in true Munster/Leinster fashion.

I hope that comment is accepted in the manner in which it is intended. Munster and Leinster, in that order, have taken Irish rugby to a new global level through what they have achieved and how they have gone about their business in amassing five Heineken Cup titles between them.

Ulster's success in 1999, though admirable, was a once-off and was tainted due to the absence of English clubs.

But what we are witnessing now from Ulster is the real deal, and they are the best bet of the Irish three to go the whole way. On Saturday, they were heroes one and all as nothing was left behind in the dressing-room. They emptied themselves to the watching world and that's what this great competition is all about.

At the final blast of Nigel Owens' whistle most were too bloodied, too tired and too sore to even react in the euphoria of that winning moment.

With those pictures, this little island - from Mizen Head to Fair Head and from Carnsore Point to Malin Head - was united as one as the honesty of their endeavours saw a united Ireland stand up unconditionally for the Ulstermen. That is what competitive sport at its very best does for the spirit.

And if Ruan Pienaar was, as ever, the catalyst (he was truly stupendous) he was surrounded by gifted players who I suspect, on this day, learned more about themselves than they ever thought possible.

For this was body-on-the-line stuff whereby 'not letting the man beside you down' was the mantra from first whistle to last. No cup was won, but for sure a fantastic group of players came of age.

It is for that reason that blowing hot and cold, as we know they can, is no longer acceptable.

I know highlighting individuals on such a collectively brilliant night is a tad unfair and yet apart from the incomparable Pienaar (his father Gysie, a very gifted Springbok, must be mighty proud too) there was so much from an Irish Six Nations' perspective to glean.

Replacements Tom Court, Iain Henderson and Robbie Diack all added extra energy when most needed, but from Rory Best through Dan Tuohy to Chris Henry (surely a shoo-in to face the Scots), Roger Wilson and on to Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave and Andrew Trimble, all the Irish-qualified players in the match-day squad made persuasive cases to Joe Schmidt.

A truly memorable day for Ulster rugby, and with Ravenhill revamped and the top-notch duo of Shane Logan and David Humphreys running the show, plus a school and youth system in highly efficient working order, the best is yet to come.

Meanwhile, in Limerick, we had another tour de force from a Munster squad growing in confidence and positivity by the game. There are still attacking shortcomings to be addressed, but what we are witnessing now is so much more than a work in progress.

This is a Munster team doing what Munster teams do best, dictating the pace of the game and exerting control over the opposition.

With that cocktail in place, they will fancy their chances against anyone, even the likes of Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse.

In accounting for Edinburgh, there was not a weak sector to the home-team performance. In individual terms Damien Varley, Dave Foley, Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell, James Coughlan, Conor Murray, Johne Murphy, Simon Zebo and Felix Jones were hugely influential.

They may still lack the all-round potency of Ulster or Leinster, but bit by bit the old Munster aura is returning and that's a pretty good place to be ahead of April's home quarter-final against Toulouse.

For Leinster, Friday's win was efficient, although Ian Evans' moment of madness (the same comment applies to Nathan White for Connacht in the game against Saracens) made the bonus-winning task one hell of a lot easier.

Evans deserved the red card and the same should have applied to White at the Allianz Stadium. There is no defence for putting boot to head, and both players fully deserve whatever longer-term punishment might be coming their way.

UNCERTAINTY

Leinster did what they had to do, with Cian Healy, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip, Sean Cronin and Marty Moore the standout performers.

As regards the Allianz debacle, the less said the better. The Connacht players let themselves down badly, but it's because of days and games like this that Connacht rugby needs all the support it can get - both moral and practical - from everyone involved in Irish rugby.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the European game, Irish rugby could have done without such a drubbing.

It's time for Connacht to front up and rise up in the Pro12.

To go from beating pool winners Toulouse in France to conceding 60-plus points and 11 tries in north London is simply unacceptable. I expected Connacht to come second best to Saracens, but not like this.

That was the only blot, but a particularly bad one, on an otherwise memorable weekend for Irish rugby.

Injuries to Sean O'Brien and Keith Earls apart, it should see a lot of happy and confident campers making their way to Carton House for the Six Nations coming firmly into view.

Irish Independent

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