Saturday 20 January 2018

Ward: Mental barrier too high for Ulster

Trophy-winning experience can help Leinster extend hoodoo

Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor knows that he will be judged on one thing - results
Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor knows that he will be judged on one thing - results
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

As a loyal Leeds United fan, even the '60s and '70s were tough. You see back then, for all the good days and big match wins, there were also many bad.

Despite some success, Leeds of the Don Revie era never fully lived up to their potential. In terms of the silverware they garnered, you could say they underachieved.

I guess Benfica of the modern football age must be feeling somewhat the same.

Switch codes and Ulster Rugby, save for 1999, could be categorised in a similar bracket. For all the Ravenhill progress in recent years – on the field and off – that all-important silverware breakthrough continues to elude them.

What is beyond doubt is that Irish rugby now has – in Leinster, Munster and Ulster – three professional entities capable of going the whole way, whether it be Pro12 or in Europe.

That said Ulster still have this massive monkey on their back.

The fact they were sold short by refereeing decisions in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup offers little consolation to a squad peaking at the business end of the season.


The disappointment of that defeat to Saracens cut deep and, while last week's unexpected but fully deserved win for an under-strength side in Thomond Park will have boosted morale in the northern camp, I'm not sure it has any relevance to what faces the first-rank troops later on today.

There is no getting away from the fact that in recent seasons Leinster have proved the bogey team for Ulster in matches of consequence.

In the last three years alone Ulster have lost a Pro12 semi-final (2011), Heineken Cup final (2012) and Pro12 final (2013).

Last year's domestic finale was an absolute cracker, with Leinster deservedly adding the league title to the Amlin Challenge Cup won the week before.

When it comes to winning games of consequence, Leinster have the proven pedigree, whereas Ulster are still to overcome this massive psychological barrier.

I do not believe it has anything to do with venue and whether there are more blue-clad Leinster supporters than white-attired Ulster fans.

The bottom line is that Leinster's hard winning edge was instilled by Michael Cheika, added to substantially by Jono Gibbes and polished significantly by Joe Schmidt.

And therein lies this fascinating challenge for Matt O'Connor too. Win today, and again in next week's final, and the transition, while nowhere near seamless, can be deemed a success. It is a sad fact of professional rugby life that silverware on the sideboard is everything.

Despite a begrudging undercurrent, O'Connor has made a fair fist of what was, to all intents and purposes, a thankless task when taking up the reins from Schmidt or, as Isa Nacewa respectfully refers to the former Leinster gaffer, 'Mr Rugby'.

O'Connor has unquestionably reinvigorated the Cheika edge but still needs to fine-tune the precision attacking that separated Leinster from the rest throughout Mr Rugby's tenure.

That said semi-finals are about just one thing - winning. And with Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen potentially making their last appearance in blue, Leinster won't care how they win, as long as they progress.

For Ulster too it is a 'must win' game to take a step closer to that first piece of meaningful silverware since the Brian McLaughlin/Mark Anscombe coaching era came into being.

Not only will defeat deny Ulster the chance to add further silverware to their Celtic Cup win in 2003 and Magners League success in 2006, it will also bring the curtain down on the provincial careers of Johann Muller, Tom Court and Sean Doyle.

Last year Ulster (81 points) finished the regular season in pole position, ahead of Leinster by three – but this time around it has been Leinster setting the pace, finishing top of the pile on 82 points, a full 12 ahead of Ulster in fourth.

Logically, home advantage, allied to that 12-point gap, not to mention winning on the road in Belfast just three weeks ago, make Leinster red-hot favourites.

Can Ulster do it? Yes.

But, providing Leinster park last week's no-show against Edinburgh and concentrate on doing the simple things they do better than any other team on this island, then there should be but one outcome.

Ulster may be down but, as witnessed in Limerick with their shadow side, they are anything but out.

Verdict: Take Leinster to do enough but, true to recent form in the fixture, with no more than a single score to spare


It's our loss that O'Sullivan's resurrection will take place in France

Rugby interest should be centred on the Pro12, English Premiership and Top 14 play-offs this week, but it's a club just relegated to the French second division that has dominated the agenda in recent days.

With respect to Biarritz, Serge Blanco and everyone concerned at this French giant that has fallen on hard times, it is the new head coach coming their way that has grabbed the headlines.

My view on Eddie O'Sullivan – and the scandalous way in which he has been treated by the IRFU – has little need for elaboration again here. Yes, he has a habit of falling out with people – but don't we all.

What matters is that one of the most talented coaches this country has ever produced has been frozen from gainful employment, despite delivering a phenomenal period of success in his time at the top of the coaching tree in this country.

Even now, I detect an element of begrudgery in the perception being peddled that the man wanted only a top job and was not prepared to ply his trade as No 2, ie as an assistant coach with responsibility for backs development.

Take it from me, that is unequivocally untrue.

I am not privy to Munster's thinking as to who they deem appropriate to succeed the departing Simon Mannix as backs coach, but O'Sullivan wanted a coaching position – and the title was irrelevant – doing what he does best on the training ground, calling the backline shots.

He is – and will always be – a tracksuit coach.

Short of being appointed head coach to the Lions – although he was there in New Zealand in 2005 as an assistant to Clive Woodward – O'Sullivan has been as close as it gets to the top of the coaching ladder.

His drive, motivation and genuine passion is obvious.

In overlooking him, the IRFU has not served Irish rugby well. Only those central to blocking the path to a great indigenous coaching talent know why it has taken until now – and a move to Basque country – to resurrect this coaching career.

I don't know much about Biarritz Olympique – but suddenly they have become my favourite team in France. I would have much preferred the former UL student to be working with Niall O'Donovan and Anthony Foley – at the soon-to-open state-of-the-art Munster coaching base – but despite hints of late to the contrary, I'm not overly convinced that was ever likely to be.

But what I do know is that a sharp rugby brain, driven by a tireless work ethic, is back at the coalface of competitive rugby.

Thursday's announcement was a good day for the Pro D2, a good day for Serge and Biarritz, but more than anything, a good day for O'Sullivan.

Watch as little gets lost in translation and Biarritz Olympique go from strength to strength.

The only pity is that the resurrection of a great coaching talent had to take place outside of these shores. The loss is ours.

Irish Independent

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