One can only imagine the atmosphere in the Ulster dressing room last Friday night before the game in Cardiff.
Last week I wrote that the players needed to provide some rays of light for the Ulster rugby family and that we needed them back and on form. My goodness, they did deliver in one of the finest displays of attacking and counterattacking rugby that I have witnessed from any group of Ulster players.
There was class in almost every department, albeit against a weak Cardiff side who posed few real threats.
Nevertheless, full credit to Ulster for putting the Welsh side under so much pressure — for all the handling and offloading excellence, strong performances are founded on doing the basics well. Ulster’s effort was underpinned by a dominant scrum and a ferociously organised defence.
Very often you see teams opt for a lineout from a penalty awarded in the opposition 22. Instead, early on, Ulster backed their juggernaut pack and scrum superiority.
There is increasingly a sense of inevitability when Ulster get into these situations and Michael Allen’s try was just reward for not only his role but the ambition and execution of many of his teammates in the earlier breakout from Ulster’s own 22.
What was so impressive was how comfortable and confident Ulster looked with ball in hand — evidence that additional time spent on the rugby pitch is paying dividends. The overseas signings have infused others with their spirit.
Afoa has lifted the handling and ball-carrying of his fellow front rowers, Muller may not have been on the pitch but his younger cohorts in the engine room did him proud, while Williams and Payne are passing on their offloading instinct.
We saw another side of Nick Williams technical skillset — his ability to clear up mess from the base of the scrum. Even with the scrum wheeling, his first try when the ball almost spilled out, showed classic number eight awareness. He mopped it up, went off on a gallop and, courtesy of Paul Marshall, smashed his way to the line.
Three moments, in particular, stood out for me and Tommy Bowe benefited from the first two. We got more than a glimpse of why Brian McLaughlin had so much confidence in Paddy Jackson in the final stages of the Heineken Cup last season.
Defensively he is brave and robust, noticeably scything down Jamie Roberts, when a gap opens he is not afraid to back himself, and his sleight of hand for Bowe’s first try since his return from the Ospreys was simply sumptuous. The great thing is that he will continue to get better and better.
When the squad watched highlights of the game this week, I wonder if the loudest cheer came as a result of second row Neil McCombe’s terrific take and give to Tommy? It is not the sort of skill we associate with a second row, but shows how far the players in general have come on.
Finally the strength in squad depth was proven by Craig Gilroy’s impact from the bench. Gilroy showed once again why it is complete and utter nonsense that Munster’s Simon Zebo appears to be ahead of him in the national pecking order. Selectors — what more does the guy have to do?
Before the game I looked at Ulster’s results and noticed that in their games so far, while wins were being registered, there was a paucity of tries. The fact that almost twice as many tries were scored in one game as the last three put together shows how this has been addressed; and not one try was a ‘gimme’. Every try had a special moment and there were gamebreakers all over the pitch. Everyone played their part and it was exciting to see so many international players making their first appearances of the season and immediately slotting in and adding value.
A resounding message has been sent out to teams in Europe that this is a squad, not just a team, that can offer exciting and effective attack with crushing defence. The sound is going out all over Europe that this is a team on the march.