There will seem few crumbs of comfort left for Ulster’s shattered rugby men this morning. To lose any final is heart wrenching but to lose it by a margin of five tries to one, represents something close to humiliation.
There were clear reasons why Ulster’s Heineken Cup dream crashed so spectacularly at Twickenham. And we will come to those in a moment.
But whatever the ultimate denouement for Ulster, there are still many aspects to celebrate from their Heineken Cup season. In times of extremis, it is best to remember where you came from, where you are now and where you want to be.
That Ulster did not complete the journey from Heineken Cup also-rans to champions in a single season, is now painfully apparent. But was it realistic to expect them to make such a quantum leap? In my book, not even Saturday’s heavy loss in the final destroys a successful season. To have reached the final at all and in the process eliminate some very decent sides was an achievement of great merit.
More than that, they played some quality rugby in the process, most noticeably in putting Leicester to the sword with that stunning 41-7 win.
Nor should the sheer guts and determination to prevail that saw them dig out victories over Munster and Edinburgh, be overlooked. Those qualities will be needed again next season and you cannot hope to reach finals without them.
Furthermore, several Ulster individuals have made clear and significant progress this season, none more so than Darren Cave. Overseas recruits like Johan Muller, Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa and Pedrie Wannenburg have shown they bought into the Ulster ethos, that they hadn’t just come for the cash. Even as the dream unravelled for Ulster on Saturday, you couldn’t accuse any of them of switching off and just mentally counting their money.
Ulster’s principles have prevailed this season and that has to be good news for the future.
So why did Ulster fail so badly in the final? That one is easy to answer. They faced a Leinster side that in my judgement is the best, the most complete and the most inventive of any team we have seen in the 17-year history of this marvellous tournament.
Leinster under New Zealand coach Joe Schmidt have been no one-show ponies. Like all the consistently successful sides, they first forged a watertight defence that could withstand the challenge of Europe’s finest, strongest sides. For some teams that would have been enough.
But what Schmidt then did was seek to add the finest attacking game of all the sides in Europe. The combination of the two has been such that Leinster retained their own trophy on Saturday — only the second team ever to do that in Heineken Cup history — and are already favourites to make it a hat-trick next season, especially with the final in Dublin.
Schmidt’s brilliant, innovative coaching and determination to score tries has produced as close as you can get to the perfect side. It is no shame on Ulster’s part that they could not contain such a dazzlingly penetrative outfit in the final.
Under the searing pressure of constant attacking innovation, fast re-cycled possession from the breakdown, Ulster eventually wilted. But they must learn lessons from this match.
Ulster’s first mistake was made before they even took the field. The selection of young Paddy Jackson in the crucial outside half role was completely wrong. Ian Humphreys may have his limitations but he had to start ahead of Jackson.
As Jonny Sexton gave a master class demonstration in how to run a game in the Leinster role, Ulster had no tactical direction whatsoever to offer. That wasn’t Jackson’s fault; coach Brian McLaughlin should never have put him in that situation.
The lack of variety in Ulster’s game needs urgent attention. They lacked nothing in courage and commitment, but even when they were going 17 phases, they were showing no real attacking ideas other than the bludgeon approach. By contrast, Leinster had a clever, silky running angle up every player’s sleeve. They made decisions on the hoof, switched the point of attacks and played with their heads up.
Ulster made so many crucial errors at critical times. Kicking out on the full after taking the ball back into their own 22, just passing endlessly down the line without straightening or switching the angle of attack played into the hands of Leinster’s well organised drift defence.
Too many Ulstermen lost possession at critical moments and some important tackles were missed. In essence, Ulster never threatened to match Leinster’s white hot focus and intensity, and they lacked too the composure and superior execution of their rivals.