Prior to last Friday’s Heineken Cup fixture against the Saints, I wrote that I believed that Ulster would have to play with an intensity and application which has not been either fully required or delivered in the last few weeks. Moreover, that Ulster would have too much individual and collective class and momentum to be denied victory.
The players delivered in a way that even the most optimistic of Ulster supporters could not have expected.
They not only beat Northampton Saints, they completely dismantled them. It was a defeat that had supporters leaving before the end of the match, something that normally never happens at Franklins Gardens.
It was a top quality performance which combined power, physicality and precision, rapier-like attack and offensive and a technically excellent defence. The tackling was so incredibly efficient.
Whether it was a decision to scythe players down around the ankles, hold them up in the ‘choke’ tackle, double up with one player going low and one targeting the ball, or stepping up out of the line to stop a Saints attack dead, they virtually all paid off. The result was that Northampton had few options and made mistakes which just added to their woes.
Rather than running out of ideas, such was the intensity of Ulster’s defence, the opposition were not allowed the space or time to come up with any ideas. To a man, Ulster stepped up in the finest display since last season’s quarter-final win over Munster.
Such was the quality at least half a dozen players could have won the man of the match award.
Andrew Trimble repaid the faith shown in him by Mark Anscombe by producing one of his best performances in a white shirt, not just because of his finishing prowess and competitive nature, but in the skill he showed in switching the direction of the attack and contributing to Jared Payne’s try. Competition for places is having a tangible effect on performances.
Another example of this is Paddy Wallace who is like a man possessed at the moment, dominating opposition in the tackle while losing nothing of his stepping and distributing skills.
Chris Henry simply gets better and better — his reading of the game displays intelligence and savvy and he shows an instinctive sense of where he needs to be and what he needs to do.
However, if there is a main difference in Ulster’s performances this year, it is what Jared Payne brings to the game. He tortured the opposition last week with his pinpoint kicking game which kept Northampton pinned back and counterattacking which kept the same players guessing.
The unity in the side is striking and the tiniest of displays are the most revealing. John Afoa was straight in when he saw Rory Best take a couple of cheap shots from Dylan Hartley, and four or five Ulster players came in to look after Ruan Pienaar when he got taken out off the ball in the second half. It makes you proud when you know that your players properly care about each other.
The final play had it all: after a torrid night Northampton’s set-piece disintegrated, Roger Wilson and Chris Henry turned the ball over, Dan Tuohy seized the ball and his first instinct was to move it into space.
Several hands later and replacements Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy played their part to combine to add another 10 or 15 metres.
Payne had the vision to switch attack, and now came the moment of utter class and skill —Tommy Bowe. Rather than simply passing the ball out he had the vision to hold it up to allow his fullback to loop around.
For me, along with Paddy Jackson’s deft kick for Trimble’s try, Bowe’s decision was the highlight of the game. He took out three defenders, was smashed in the process, but opened up key additional space for Payne to keep attacking and send Dan Tuohy in at the corner.
It was a score of the highest quality and it came from the squad — a true collective effort.
This was a full-blooded 80- minute performance that made you proud to be an Ulster supporter.
The fixture needed something special and that is exactly what the players delivered.