Defeat against Munster and then victory over the Scarlets may not mean that 2013 started in exactly the same vein as 2012 finished, but the emphatic nature of Ulster’s victory last Friday sent out all the right signals to rival teams.
The message was strong — the tone of Ulster’s victory was exactly what was required.
It had many of the hallmarks of what was good about the team’s performances last year and set Ulster’s stall out for the rest of the season. It felt like normal service had resumed.
It was important that Ulster bounced back after that defeat down in Thomond Park.
Back at Ravenhill, strengthened by some key players, and facing a side that despite its high placing in the RaboDirect is facing a mini-crisis in terms of injuries, all meant that this was a game which Ulster had to win.
It was also important that Ulster regained momentum as they prepare for the final two rounds of the Heineken Cup. After such a momentous run of victories, back-to-back defeats would have been highly unpalatable.
Therefore, in the first half it was heartwarming to see Nick Williams picking the ball up one-handed and launching through the ruck to set off on another rumble. It felt like old times. The ball-carrying of the big man was a key feature of Ulster’s early season form — he breaks defences, sucks in defenders and offers the chance for quick ball to launch the backline strikepower.
The opening 40 minutes asked much of Ulster and the team was fortunate to be in the lead at the interval.
The Scarlets started brightly with plenty of endeavour in their attacking game, while the Welsh defence had a snappy tempo and challenged the possession that Ulster enjoyed in the second quarter.
Yet, Ulster dealt with the Scarlets’ attack in a controlled fashion to the point where often the only option left was a crossfield kick which may have put the Scarlets deep in Ulster’s territory but gave the ball away and a chance for Ulster to clear their lines.
If there is something that came out of the first half it is that word — possession.
Even in the terrific win over Northampton Saints, Ulster produced that performance from a striking lack of possession.
You cannot give better teams that amount of ball and expect to keep them out indefinitely.
The best way to control a game is to control the ball, and while Ulster’s defence looked extremely robust, winning and keeping more of the ball will be an aspect which the team and coaching staff will look to improve on this weekend.
While the first 40 minutes were tight, the game exploded into life in that third quarter. Although it was another imperious display from Ruan Pienaar, Williams had the man of the match award in the bag when he was subbed in the 57th minute.
What an impact he makes on a game and his angle of running and offloading give a competitive edge to the Ulster attack.
The set piece got better and with an even more solid platform, there was great balance between Pienaar and Paddy Jackson in terms of their decisions whether to pass or kick. In such circumstances Ulster’s backline can fizz.
The try by Andrew Trimble showed great awareness and reading of a situation — the depth of his run utterly disguised the incisive angle. The change in angle between the player coming back and the winger cutting outside again is one which merits the use of a protractor.
It is a move where maths and rugby merge and Ulster’s wingers are all capable of running effective lines. Against a fragmented defence it can be lethal and no wonder Ulster are increasingly using the move.
All in all, it augurs well for Friday evening’s contest against Glasgow.
Having beaten last week’s second-placed team in the RaboDirect, Ulster have to do it again as Glasgow’s own thrashing of Treviso propelled them up the league table.
It will be a tough, uncompromising game. There will be no underestimation or semblance of complacency from Ulster. The memory of the Saints’ recent visit to and shock result at Ravenhill will guarantee that.
With potential qualification on the line the carrot is considerable and I expect |Ulster to register |a home |win.