The drama of Ulster’s Heineken Cup success was slightly muted by the defeat to Munster at the weekend and exit from the RaboDirect Pro12 playoffs. The size of the crowd at Thomond Park was indicative of the anti-climax of the occasion — based on the assumption that Munster would inflict a sizeable defeat on Ulster.
From a supporter’s viewpoint the result was irrelevant. Yet, it was enormously reassuring that the game was not the triumphant slaughter and revenge that Munster supporters would have liked.
There was no real gloss to the victory with Munster’s penultimate try looking distinctly dodgy, while the final score was as much down to Ulster fatigue.
It was a solid and creditable effort from the Ulster players who took the pitch, which had a double effect: firstly, it stopped a strong Munster team from taking much ‘enjoyment’ from the victory and, secondly, the players did credit to the shirt they were wearing.
This is exactly as it should be. The opportunity to pull on the white shirt should always mean something, and with Declan Kidney in attendance it was exactly the sort of occasion when you can cause a few people to go away with your name on their lips.
One such player was Iain Henderson. Playing at six, Henderson showed rare pace, power and intent for his try. It was the sort of charge that we have become accustomed to seeing from Stephen Ferris, and in terms of pace off the mark and shrugging off backline defenders, it reminded me of Tom Croft’s try for England against France in the recent Six Nations. Keep an eye out for this young man.
Another memorable moment was when young outhalf Paddy Jackson tackled and stripped the ball from a Munster forward, an eye-catching feature of Jackson’s game.
While technique is important, the key prerequisite lies in one’s head. Defence is a mental challenge. It is maybe the one big difference between Jackson and Ian Humphreys, his rival for the 10 shirt.
Humphreys has taken his fair share of criticism over his career, but to focus on his defence would be to neglect the wonderful talent that he possesses and his contribution to Ulster’s success, none more so than his involvement in the European defeats of Munster at Thomond Park. Furthermore, while not a natural defender, invariably in the big games, he puts his head down and gets stuck in.
Humphreys’ talents lie elsewhere — with ball in hand. There have been times when I have watched and looked on in wonderment at his level of level of skill and ability to identify and exploit gaps. Oh, to have had a fraction of that talent.
Against Biarritz last season, I awarded him Man of the Match for his sublime kicking and performance under pressure. With the match in the balance he converted a penalty kick from the halfway line — as soon as it left his boot, it was never in doubt. It was a kick of utmost confidence. It was also a kick of immense courage.
We have all been impressed at how Paddy Jackson has stepped into the 10 position. His recent performances and lingering question marks over Humphreys’ defence may well tip the balance in Jackson’s favour in terms of selection for the Heineken Cup final. Nevertheless, whether he starts at 10 or from the bench, Humphreys could still have a major role to play in securing the ultimate prize in European club rugby.
The Ulster way is a squad way and European success will always be based on the power of the collective. It’s a shame that we will not see the combined efforts of Jackson and Humphreys next season but, come the Heineken Cup final, both might just contribute to winners’ medals for all.