Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin wasn’t altogether happy following his side’s 19-17 win over Glasgow on Friday night.
Hard taskmaster? No, honest and realistic, for he knows Ulster have been shading verdicts that might well have gone against them.
Although the Magners League table shows them to have won four and drawn one of the season’s five competitive matches, McLaughlin’s view is that Ulster still have not performed to anything like their full potential.
His feels Ulster ought now to be moving through the gears rather than still struggling to beat opponents by the shortest of short heads. I agree with him.
That is not to decry results to date; far from it. Most know only too well that there have been occasions in the past — plenty of them — when Ulster have played well, only to lose. That being the case, one suspects that those who have lived through such misfortunes will be a lot happier to be grinding out results at this stage.
But now McLaughlin is asking for more. His words: “Yes, the results have been good but we need to start performing. It’s time we started playing some rugby,” are wholly apt.
Consider: Ulster’s Magners League wins to date have been by slender margins — 27-26 against Ospreys at Ravenhill, 22-15 away to Aironi, 29-21 against Edinburgh in Belfast and, most recently, 19-17 against the other Scottish club, Glasgow, also on home soil.
Between those two wins over the Scots was a 15-15 draw with Connacht in Galway.
Friday night’s victory over opponents who came to Ravenhill having lost each of their previous three matches to Newport Gwent Dragons, Connacht and Munster — the last two of those defeats at home — was closer run than most had envisaged.
Pre-match, the bookmakers, who don’t often err, offered Ulster at 1/6. But despite having been installed as such firm favourites, they scraped home once again with nothing to spare.
A penalty or a drop goal would have seen Glasgow depart triumphant — and that was always a threat given Duncan Weir’s accuracy.
Make no mistake; Glasgow’s 19-year-old fly-half’s kicking kept his side in the hunt right up to the final whistle, with Ulster once again unable to pull away from opponents inferior to them.
For after recovering well following a bad start which saw the Scots chalk up an early 8-0 lead courtesy of a Weir penalty and a soft DTH Van der Merwe try, Ulster then allowed themselves to be overhauled at the end of the first half.
Two further Weir penalties eclipsed a Ruan Pienaar brace which was followed by his fine try and stunning touchline conversion. As a result, Glasgow turned round 14-13 to the good, Ulster’s overall superiority notwithstanding.
Another Pienaar penalty at the start of the second half restored Ulster’s lead, only for Weir to respond with an audacious 60-metres goal which made it 17-16 to the guests with just 30 minutes remaining. Was it to be one of those nights?
No, because this Ulster side, with its Springboks core, now has a tough inner strength.
This season has seen a new will to win, a belief that it is possible and the necessary know-how to make it happen.
Thus, when they needed another twist of the screw to salvage the match and maintain their unbeaten run, Pienaar delivered his fourth penalty to finish his debut with all 19 of his new club’s points.
The work ethic, demonstrated so ably by skipper Rory Best, is clearly there but Ulster must start to produce more convincing per
formances by ensuring that when the momentum is with them, they make that count.
They must also continue working towards eradicating the frustrating concession of cheap penalties.
If they do that, learn to be more clinical in their opponents’ 22, stop kicking away possession and tighten up their setpieces, they will be the team McLaughlin envisages.
And Pienaar’s arrival makes that much more likely.