Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

The biggest game for Ulster since ‘99 triumph

This team can become legends too

Top man: Paddy Wallace has been in great form for Ulster over recent weeks

In terms of pure rugby, it is the biggest weekend for Ulster Rugby since 1999. Symbolically, victory represents even more. What is on offer is a chance to redefine the hierarchy within Irish rugby.

As Heineken Cup champions, Leinster are top dogs, further confirmed by victory at Thomond Park last weekend. Given their record, both past and present, Munster are ranked second, but make no mistake, Ulster are snapping at their heels.

This is a seminal moment which could see Ulster overtake one of their greatest rivals.

In the dying embers of Round Six, Ulster were either going to be away to Leinster or travelling down to Thomond Park.

When it transpired that Ulster would be heading into Munster’s backyard, it left me licking my lips in anticipation. Why? Because this is a venue full of opportunity for Ulster.

It does not hold the fear that it once did. A healthy respect — absolutely. But the absolute nature of the fortress has waned in recent seasons.

I say this with some reservation. Thomond Park is still one of the toughest places on earth to visit, and I have nothing but utter respect for the heroics that Munster have produced for what seems like time in memoriam. However it is no longer impregnable and I believe that this Ulster team is fully aware of the fact.

The easy victory over Aironi was little more than a training run, a test against ‘live’ opposition, but it will have boosted confidence.

The players did exactly what was required and handled the challenge of putting away a weak team well. It was mature, controlled, while always giving the feeling that there was a lot more left in the tank.

There needs to be, because Sunday is a solar system away from Aironi.

What impressed me most was how Ulster pounced on the Italians’ mistakes. When in the opposition 22, Ulster seemed to ratchet up the intensity and hunger and capitalised in a ruthless fashion. Dare I say that it was Munster-esque.

There are plenty of areas which need improvement — protection of the ball in contact and too many soft or missed tackles — but I am not overly concerned as Sunday will see a natural but seismic shift in intensity, focus and physicality.

The forward effort is crucial. Given that Northampton Saints were awarded two penalty tries in Munster’s final pool game, Ulster surely have every intention of targeting the scrum.

All the signs are that Tom Court’s confidence has been restored. Back in his favoured loosehead position Court is a vital cog in a front row alongside the ‘Best’ hooker in Europe and an All Black tighthead who is worth his weight in gold.

In terms of the line-out, this may have an even greater influence on the outcome.

For me, it is less about supremacy and more about not allowing Ulster’s own ball to be unsettled. Anything extra is a bonus.

Based on a positive forward effort, two players who could have the biggest impact in the game are centres Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave. Both have spent much of the season kicking their heels — Wallace under-utilised with Ireland or Cave through injury. They look fresh, on form and raring to go.

Ulster’s centres have the ability to unlock the door with the keys of passing, offloading, angles of running and footwork.

It will be a titanic battle. While we all hope that Stephen Ferris will be fit, it does not change the challenge that Munster will provide.

They play with the utmost intensity and make you work hard for your points. In turn, they put opposition sides under pressure to the point where basic and often uncharacteristic mistakes can happen, and then they pounce. If there is a frailty, they will ruthlessly hunt it down.

Nevertheless, Ulster will not be afraid. This is the strongest team ever to leave Belfast and represents a credible and significant threat to the home side.

While Munster rightly enter the game as favourites, this is a massive opportunity to achieve a home semi-final in the world’s premier club competition.

Ulster have the self-belief, the experience, the doggedness, the gamebreakers, the skill and the finishers.

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