For some, Ulster’s schizophrenic display against Benetton Treviso on Friday night appears to have raised as many questions as it provided answers.
At a cursory glance it was a real Jekyll and Hyde performance in which, in the first half, they did as had been hoped for by cutting the Italians to shreds — scoring four tries in the process — but then stepped off the gas completely.
They failed to score a post-interval point and afterwards, as the stands emptied, I overheard one concerned Ulster supporter ask a fellow-season-ticket holder: “Could you see Munster doing that? They would have gone on and buried that team.”
Coach Brian McLaughlin himself admitted that the ability to play high tempo rugby for the full 80 minutes is “the difference between a good team and a great team”.
But the canny McLaughlin’s telling follow-up to that assertion was: “Maybe our second half performance against Treviso was no bad thing.
“If, after scoring 32 points in the first half, we’d kicked on and scored a lot more we might have got a wee bit ahead of ourselves.
“So hopefully as a result of Friday night we will be going in against Biarritz with our feet very firmly on the ground.”
In Friday night’s post-match press conference Paddy Wallace, who had just earned his 150th provincial cap, implied it had been a case of Ulster keeping their powder dry ahead of Saturday’s crucial Heineken Cup home game with Biarritz.
Sitting alongside coach McLaughlin and captain Rory Best,
Wallace said: “We didn’t want to show our hand.”
The look on McLaughlin’s face at that moment was one of bemusement, prompting a member of the assembled media corps to quickly ask if that had been the coach’s half-time directive.
“He didn’t say that,” Wallace hastened to confirm, ‘he’ being McLaughlin.
There are probably still many who would have been happier if the explanation for Friday night’s post-interval performance — or lack thereof — could be sourced to an instruction to ease off. Then they would know that Ulster’s second rate second half showing was attributable to a decision to coast — certainly as an attacking entity — rather than a case of them having lost their way which would be far more worrying.
McLaughlin’s analysis of the second period was honest, however. There was no instruction or conscious decision to free-wheel.
“Our game management was poor after half-time. We didn’t play in the right areas of the pitch. Some of our decision-making wasn’t great,” he said.
If at a subconscious level, as a result of having a maximum five Magners League points in the bag, Ulster played within themselves, that is understandable.
As skipper Best explained: “A lot of games turn into non-entities when you’ve got five points at half-time.”
Certainly there were positives to be taken from the period when Ulster were in the mood. The scrum went well, with the referee seemingly wholly content with the legality of Ulster’s routine.
The line-out was sound, too, and the fact that those setpieces were impressive against opponents — many of them full Italian internationals — who pride themselves on those two aspects of the game, and on their driving mauls, was a huge plus.
“In terms of their scrum and line-out they’re not unlike Biarritz, although Biarritz are a lot better than Treviso,” McLaughlin noted. “And they like to come at you from around the corner with big, hard boys which is something Biarritz do, too.”
A good work-out then, albeit that Saturday afternoon’s opponents will ask harder questions.
Some of the moments in the build-up to Ulster’s scores against the Italians were top drawer quality. And, for once, there were some elements of good fortune along the way, too.
Nevin Spence was the beneficiary of a kindly bounce, Ian Humphreys’ second penalty of the night went over via the right-hand upright at the Aquinas End.
McLaughlin said: “We got the rub of the green a few times, but I think we’d earned that right. There have been plenty of times when we haven’t got it.”
Ulster’s goal on Friday night, five points, was achieved. Another was the avoidance of injury.
Hopefully they have managed that, too, with McLaughlin’s post-match assessment being: “We’ve come out not too bad. We’ll know more when we hear from the medics on Monday.”
Ruan Pienaar, Declan Fitzpatrick (both ribs), Pedrie Wannenburg (leg) and Andrew Trimble (hamstring) were the players to pick up knocks.