Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Heineken Cup: Hunger for success has Ulster on right track

Robbie Diack, Ulster's man of the match in their Heineken Cup win over Aironi on Friday night tries to evade the challenge of Nicola Cattina

It says much about Ulster’s level of expectation and the demands they now make of themselves that Friday night’s 30-6 bonus point-winning start to the Heineken Cup failed to satisfy their hunger.

Supporters of Brian McLaughlin and his team can take heart from that — and from the fact that the coach and players were wholly united in the honest assessment of their evening’s work.

Very pleased to have won but we know we can play a lot better and that there will be much bigger tests, sums up their post-match mood.

It’s a fair enough analysis, too; they can play better and there will be much greater challenges ahead than that presented by Aironi.

Even now it is obvious that the Italians will be the pool 4 whipping boys, with Ulster, Biarritz Olympique and Bath vying for supremacy at the newcomers’ expense.

Aironi never looked like coping with the intensity of the Heineken Cup and had Ulster been more clinical, their victory margin would have been considerably greater than 24 points.

Ulster produced some excellent flashes, offset by moments when they were victims of their own impatience.

The latter stages of the first half were a case in point.

Aironi were reduced to 14 men just short of the half-hour when 83 times-capped Italian lock Marco Bortolami was yellow-carded by excellent English referee Craig White who had warned the guests about repeated infringements with Ulster encamped close to their line.

Leading 8-6, with a man advantage and supremacy in both scrum and line-out, Ulster held all the aces.

But in their anxiety to cash in on this situation before the half-time whistle they proceeded to concede possession cheaply, enabling Aironi to escape unpunished for the duration of Bortolami’s 10-minute absence.

Ironically, it was only when the second row returned after his time on the line that Ruan Pienaar kicked a penalty which left Ulster 11-6 up at the break with the use of the Memorial-Aquinas End wind to come.

While on the night it didn’t matter that they failed to exploit that advantage, one suspects that against Biarritz or Bath, such laxity might prove more costly.

The same also is true of their goal-kicking profligacy, with Ruan Pienaar’s 40 per cent success rate — two from five — something which could take its toll in more closely contested fixtures.

That said, he is a top drawer scrum-half alongside whom Ian Humphreys may just flourish, finally fulfiling all of his considerable potential as a stand-off.

Humphreys has ability a-plenty; no-one has ever disputed that. But he has been a victim of his own inconsistency and, in addition, has long been criticised for his defence.

So, too, was his brother David, of course, but he proved it can be improved with work.

Friday night’s positives far outweighed the negatives, however, the nature of the opposition notwithstanding.

South African forwards Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Robbie Diack showed all of the experience gleaned from wars waged in their homeland, each contributing hugely to Ulster’s win.

Muller was immense out of touch in particular, while the ball-carrying of Wannenburg and Diack repeatedly saw ground made.

But there were telling roles from other non-South African pack members, with the font three — Bryan Young, skipper Rory Best and Tom Court — acquitting themselves admirably in the scrum, never more than in the 22nd minute when Ulster drove Aironi back on their own put-in to create the chance from which Diack and Pienaar combined to put Andrew Trimble away.

And the speed with which the forwards broke and with which the backs handled and spread the ball wide for Simon Danielli’s try — Ulster’s third — was another fine example of a team in unison.

Pienaar’s simply confirmed his class as a finisher.

Two outings, two tries scored.

Of their last eight competitive outings, Ulster have won seven and drawn one.

And knowing that there is at least another gear in this engine, they can travel to Biarritz with a degree of confidence.

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