Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Tyrone Howe: Ulster can compete with best

Brian McLaughlin
Brian McLaughlin

It may not be a terribly impressive attempt at poetry, but it still seems rather apt to cheer, ‘Hip hip hooray for the boys from Galway’. Of course, Ulster’s losing bonus point against Clermont would have done the trick but, nonetheless, how much better did it feel sitting down to watch the match in the full knowledge that qualification for the knock-out stages was secured?

Having lost 14 games on the bounce, Eric Elwood’s men might have been forgiven for giving up the ghost. But they are made of far sterner stuff.

If Ireland’s former talisman has displayed one quality it is the ability to keep the self-belief of his squad intact through the toughest of troughs. If you could bottle their character, surely you could brand it as ‘strength in adversity’.

Connacht’s victory over Harlequins, coupled with Gloucester’s demolition of Toulouse, completed an even bigger shock start to the weekend than Ulster’s famous victory over the Tigers seven days earlier.

I did wonder what effect this might have on the Ulster psyche. Would the security of qualification take the edge off their play, or spur them on to the greater prize of a home quarter-final.

As it transpired, and to their eternal credit, I think it made no difference to the approach of Brian McLaughlin (right) and his players.

It was business as usual with the desire to get another monkey off the back with an away victory in France.

The ideal result may not have been achieved, but what Ulster did contribute to was a compelling contest between two high quality sides.

Unless you have been there and witnessed it for yourself, you cannot fathom the ferocity and intensity of the atmosphere at Stade Marcel Michelin.

The sheer volume and resonance of sound makes it one of the most unique stadia in world rugby. This is not hyperbole — it is incredible.

Against this backdrop, and against a side brimming with international class, Ulster fronted up, pushed the home side all the way and will have returned home extremely disappointed.

The players will know that they had chances but in the end Clermont just had that little bit extra and a few decisions and bounces of the ball went their way. Clermont shaded it but only just.

The best sides in European rugby have to display two key qualities — not only the ability to crank up the tempo with high class rugby when necessary but also a dogged survival instinct.

Leinster and Munster have it in bucketloads, but in the opening 10 minutes in France, Ulster coped with and survived the onslaught.

Much of it was of their own doing. An overcooked box kick, the odd fumble in possession, but the scramble defence and resolute attitude was admirable.

It was also necessary — if you let Clermont through, before you know it you are staring at a 20 point margin and a mountain to climb.

But Ulster came close to the summit of European rugby’s current Everest.

Ulster had nowhere near the same control as against the Tigers a week prior. This came as no surprise.

The scale of the collisions was bigger, the urgency in the play up a notch from a week earlier. But the key point is that Clermont experienced exactly the same problems.

These were two talented, well-organised sides going toe-to-toe for 80 minutes. In the end, the defining moment and difference in the game was the Ti’i Paulo try. Yes, Nathan Hines obstructed Chris Henry, and yes, you could say it was cheating, which I can’t condone.

Ask the Clermont supporters — one man’s cheating is another man’s smart play. The try stood and that’s all that matters.

So what comes out of the match?

Well, that elusive victory in France is still elusive, but Ulster are closer than ever.

More importantly, the squad has taken another step in terms of its self-belief.

Such was the character shown in Clermont that the players will surely draw on this experience when they face crucial away fixtures in the future.

Would there be anywhere better to apply this than in the quarter-final in Thomond Park?

All along I have said that there is more to come from this Ulster side, and I see no reason to change that opinion now.

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