Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Tyrone Howe: Ulster in need of a kick-start to season

Yesterday afternoon I received the following text from an ardent Liverpool supporter, “Giggs has just scored to make it 5-3.” Of course, the inherent joke was the extended injury time played by the referee in Sunday’s Manchester derby.

While I must confess that I am also taking a bit of time to get used to the image of Michael Owen celebrating in the red of United (but clearly not as much as the person who sent the original message), this preposterous allegation of ‘Fergie-time” got me thinking.

If the Ulster coach, Brian McLaughlin, had been afforded the ability to influence the referee’s whistle, what would he have done last Friday night at Ravenhill?

Well, had a phenomenon like ‘McGlock-time’ existed, instead of playing extra minutes, Ulster’s match against Edinburgh would surely have been blown up at half-time.

Ulster dominated the opening forty minutes with some lovely rugby, marked by pace, width and a successful off-loading game, but crucially this was not reflected sufficiently on the scoreboard. Ulster did not score enough points when they were virtually in complete control. A lack of execution and inaccuracy undermined what otherwise was a terrific first-half effort.

The former displayed itself in Ian Whitten’s final left-to-right-hand pass which let down what had been a sterling individual effort from the young centre.

The latter came through in the missed kicking opportunities. None were straightforward, but nonetheless it let Edinburgh off the hook.

At half-time it was obvious that Ulster had not got sufficient return for their efforts, particularly when you considered the possession and territory that the team had enjoyed.

To give a sense of how important goal-kicking is these days, we can look at two examples. In the Top 14 at the weekend, Jonny Wilkinson kicked all of Toulon’s eighteen points to steer his newly adopted club to a victory over the French giants Toulouse and into third position in the league.

Maybe even more salient an example is that Leicester have not scored a try in their first three games of the Guinness Premiership season, but still find themselves in fifth place. Ulster, by comparison, have crossed the white line five times. The key difference for the Tigers has been the boot of stand-in outhalf Jeremy Staunton who has just kept on slotting his kicks.

Talk to the players involved with Ulster’s 1999 European Cup win and you will find that they are still in awe of Simon Mason’s metronomic prowess with the boot. Imagine the confidence that it gives you knowing that if you score a try or the other team infringes, you will see the points rack up in front of you.

The key word mentioned above is ‘steer’. Given the strength and organisation of defences these days, inevitably teams have to work harder than ever to score tries. This increases the relative value of conversions, penalties and drop-goals. Accuracy in these areas steers a team to victory. It doesn’t guarantee a win, but it makes a hefty contribution to the outcome.

It is unfortunate, but justified that the criticism and disappointment will ultimately rest with young outhalf, Ian Humphreys. Then again it goes with the territory and on plenty of occasions Humph Jnr has also enjoyed the glory of kicking duties. For example he steered Ulster and Leicester to victories over Munster at Thomond Park — how many can say that? He is big enough, old enough and wise enough to bounce back.

It would be very easy to let this overshadow Humphreys’ wider contribution to the match. He is clearly working hard on his game and should take a lot of credit for keeping up the tempo in Ulster’s phase play and utilising the wide spaces of the Ravenhill grass.

Let’s not forget also that fullback Clinton Schifcoske was signed mainly because of his placekicking ability. It was a beautiful evening at Ravenhill last Friday, there wasn’t a breath of wind and I must confess that I thought it was tailor-made for the Australian.

The place-kicking issue is something that has to be cleared up, but before we get too down on ourselves, there are plenty of positives to take. Rather than tend towards a glass half-empty approach, why not instead look at the glass half-full.

Firstly, Friday night saw the return of competitive rugby to the new Ravenhill. On a fraction of the budget of our Munster rivals, a great job has been done with the stadium. It looks fantastic and greatly enhances the look, feel and functionality of the home of Ulster rugby. Secondly, I haven’t seen the official attendance, but it felt as though there was a big crowd and the atmosphere was like the best of times in the past.

Thirdly, finally and most importantly, Ulster treated us to some terrific stuff — the team gave us something to cheer. Compare this to the mediocrity which we were forced to endure only twelve months ago.

The only thing that was missing was the result and yes, I realise that winning is everything at this level. However, if (and it is a big if) Ulster can get an away win in Galway this weekend, then the team would have two victories from four games, some decent rugby behind them and would sit in a mid-table position.

At the end of the first month of the Magners League this would be tangible improvement on last season.

Of course, this is all contingent on going down to Galway and doing a job on Connacht. A win clearly means everything, but I do not subscribe to being content with a scrappy performance. We need to do a job, but one which is energetic, ambitious, and, above all, accurate. Why settle for scrappy? What I saw in the opening forty minutes last Friday confirms that we are capable of quality.

My glass is half-full. Top it up, lads.