Sport Soccer

Thursday 22 February 2018

Ulster rue what might have been due to lack of forward thrust

Doak's men miss 'home' final because of injuries and plain bad luck

Ulster head coach Neil Doak has faced criticism over his team selection for his team's match against Glasgow last week
Ulster head coach Neil Doak has faced criticism over his team selection for his team's match against Glasgow last week

Jim Glennon

Six days on from Ulster's visit to Scotstoun in the final round of the Pro12, the same franchises and jerseys took the field again on Friday but it was a markedly different Ulster.

There had been rumbles of discontent and disapproval over Neil Doak's selection of what amounted to a second-string team last week. I thought then, and even after Friday night's outcome, I still think it was the right thing to do. I'm sure the squad would have been confident before kick-off that this time around, with an almost full deck from which to deal, the outcome could be different.

Sure the absence through injury of the South African duo, prop Wiehahn Herbst and second-row Franco van der Merwe, who have been key additions to the team in the wake of the departed John Afoa and Johann Muller, would have been crucial. They were two of the most consistent performers in the league in their debut season.

With the greatest respect to their replacements Ricky Lutton and Lewis Stevenson, they're simply not of the same standard, and this relative lack of depth has been a key component in the team's struggles to take that extra step up this season. Glasgow, along with the big three Irish provinces, have been the most consistent performers in the Pro12 in recent seasons and have been on a path of progress similar to that of Ulster. While their European performances have fallen short they are nonetheless a fine team.

This semi-final was crucial for both sides given their similar trajectories so it will be interesting to see how Glasgow can build on the win. At this point, silverware is not only of vital importance as a reward for work done to date, but also as an affirmation to all involved that they are indeed moving in the right direction, and an endorsement of the possibility of further success. In last year's final, Glasgow travelled to the RDS and really tested Leinster for most of the game until the home team eventually closed it out, winning by a misleadingly large margin. It is a notable achievement to be back in the final again.

The most eye-catching of the head-to-heads on Friday was in the back-three with the Ulster unit of Craig Gilroy, Tommy Bowe, and the under-rated South African Louis Ludik up against the excellent Stuart Hogg, former Ulster player Tommy Seymour, and the ultra-dangerous Niko Matawalu. Matawalu was his usual ball of energy throughout and while Ulster were careful of what ball and space he was afforded, it was clear that the Fijian's propensity for occasional implosion had been identified as a potential weakness, particularly in the face of Tommy Bowe's size and physicality.

He was duly exposed for Chris Henry's try and, while highly dangerous in possession, he let himself down badly with his tendency towards football-like histrionics and gymnastics - a tendency warranting much stricter management than that provided by referee George Clancy.

The battle of the blindsides was another fascinating encounter. Glasgow's veteran Josh Strauss, another teak-tough South African but probably more at home at No 8, was up against the rapidly-maturing Iain Henderson, a player who has achieved near box-office status, creating genuine excitement for spectators - a rare quality indeed in any player, and particularly so for an Irish forward!

Once again, the young cub came up with some great interventions, both in attack and defence, and his physical presence, power and sheer athleticism probably make him the form player in Irish rugby currently. Precisely how Joe Schmidt uses him remains to be seen though and will be one of the fascinations of the upcoming World Cup for Irish supporters.

In the absence of Herbst, the anchor of Ulster's scrum, and Van der Merwe, their lineout general, the Ulster set-piece was always going to be the primary target for the hosts but they made few inroads. They fared little better out of touch and Ulster managed to get the better of matters at the breakdown, largely through Henderson, Henry and Rory Best.

Behind the scrum, Paddy Jackson quietly continued his strong vein of form, gently nudging himself into a more prominent position in Schmidt's thinking. His ability to carry the ball flat to the line, generate pace, and fire off these ultra-flat passes have become the hallmark of his game, and if he's not kicking quite as much as he'd like in the presence of Ruan Pienaar, he is nonetheless developing into an outhalf of real international calibre.

In the tightest of contests, the doggedness of the hosts and their home support emerged victorious at the death; Ulster badly missed their injured forwards and came up just short, again. Their bitter disappointment will be compounded next week when they watch their conquerors face up to Munster in their own beloved Kingspan Park/Ravenhill and ponder what might have been.

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