Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

One last effort can kick-start a new Ulster era

The boot of Paddy Jackson could be crucial to Ulster's hopes in the Saturday's PRO12 decider
The boot of Paddy Jackson could be crucial to Ulster's hopes in the Saturday's PRO12 decider

It must have been something in my waters when I wrote last week that I thought Jonny Wilkinson's boot would play a key role in a Toulon victory in the Heineken Cup final.

When you look at the statistics, Clermont's dominance was up there with Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations.

You look at the percentages and think that there can only be one winner. For Ireland and Clermont the better side on the day didn't win.

But that is what Test match rugby is about – every game is a cup final with the finest margins at play and you have got to take your chances.

The Heineken Cup is not dissimilar – if you lose a game in the pool stages it can dictate much about your chances in the competition.

Ulster's loss against Northampton Saints at home meant that a home quarter-final looked ominously distant.

Therefore, while 29 other players battled it out, there can be little doubt that one player had his personal stamp all over this year's competition. Step forward Jonny Wilkinson – you can't really argue with a flawless 100 per cent record with the boot in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final. In total he scored 56 out of 61 Toulon points in those three games.

The only shame, however, was that for all the talent on show Toulon only managed one try in the knockout stages.

Effectively the team that played the best rugby of the competition lost to a side whose hunger, defence and doggedness kept them in the hunt and they pounced when they had their chance.

As Ulster look ahead to their tilt at Leinster in the RaboDirect Pro12 final at the RDS on Saturday, there are plenty of lessons that the players will take from Toulon's performance at the weekend.

Posing the question, 'How did they win?' you come up with some crucial pointers to potential success. Awesome defence, as produced by Matthieu Bastareaud, will have to be at the heart of Ulster's performance – aggressive and together.

That first hit is crucial because it dictates the time that you have to reset your defensive line compared to the time the opposition has to recycle and set up another attack.

Ulster need to be strong and organised.

The composure that Wilkinson gave Toulon has to be offered by both Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar.

This is a key feature of what makes the latter world class – Pienaar has that same composure as Wilkinson under pressure, he invariably makes the right decisions and dictates the pace of the game. Pienaar needs a big game and then a long, overdue rest.

The other big name players also need to perform. One of the features of the Heineken Cup defeat to Saracens was that the main guys didn't have great games.

In certain cases match fitness was an issue – this is no longer an issue and Ulster have had an extra week to get fresh, so the players should be firing on all cylinders.

We have seen Ulster perform mightily this season and at their best we have seen a front row dominate opponents, Nick Williams on rampaging form, Jared Payne in brilliant counter-attacking style and player of the season Andrew Trimble aggressive and hungry for work.

Collectively the players know that it is possible due to the victory at the RDS less than two months ago and this mental factor cannot be underestimated.

It will be brutally difficult. Leinster, as they showed against Stade Francais, are a team that knows how to win and close out competitions.

They will be driven on by out-going coach Joe Schmidt, who is greedy for success.

But Ulster also have a great need for something – there is a burning desire to come out of the season with something tangible; to show that the lessons have been learned from the Heineken Cup final last year and prove that this is a better team one year on.

Yes, the French teams have an added advantage courtesy of their chequebooks. But look at the Ulster team sheet – it is littered with internationals and excellent players.

As ever the game is not played on paper.

It is on the pitch where it counts and Ulster need to come together this Saturday for one last monumental effort this season.

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