As a sportsman, the worst feeling or thought to be left with as you leave the pitch is, ‘What if?’ It makes no difference whether it is the professional game, schools’ rugby, or the local club 4th XV — this is a human reaction and leaves you shaking your head in frustration.
Rarely are these words uttered after a poor performance, but rather after an almighty effort where you have put everything into the game but inevitably have come up just short. This, then, triggers the application and ability of hindsight.
Northampton Saints’ Russian winger, Vasily Artemyev, must still be thinking, ‘what if he had caught the bouncing ball in the final minutes at Thomond Park’. It would have secured his team the best possible start in Round 1 of the Heineken Cup.
Instead, still hurting from the grand larceny of Ronan O’Gara’s right boot, last year’s runners-up lost at home to the Scarlets. Even at this early stage of the tournament it looks as if the Saints will make a quiet exit.
Instead, Munster who take the notion of playing until the final whistle to extremes rarely visited by any other team, have their Pool by the scruff of the neck.
Clearly, there is a lot of rugby still to be played, but the odds must have shortened drastically on home quarterfinals for both Munster and defending champions, Leinster. Disappointingly and no less frustrating, Brian McLaughlin (pictured) and his men will rue the missed opportunity of an historic win or, at the very least, a losing bonus point at Welford Road.
What a performance from the pack. At the very least it confirms what we knew already — that physically Ulster should be able to compete with any team in Europe.
This was what the Heineken Cup is all about — two sides high on intensity and competitive spirit, fighting it out, because there simply was no other choice.
The intensity of a top Heineken Cup game between two sides of comparable ability is close to that of an international Test match. The similarities do not stop there.
Rarely is either decided by a moment of genius. It feels strange writing that in the light of ROG’s incredible drop goals, but you don’t see those sort of last second drop goals too often. Instead, when you look for key moments, invariably your gaze turns to little mistakes.
These may, in themselves, have no direct effect however, they are not without consequence.
Instead, maybe the best way to describe it is like the wave pattern of the Doppler Effect, or simply dropping a pebble into a pond and watching the subsequent disturbance.
Why do these mistakes occur? It might be due to pure lack of ability, experience or composure, but far more often it is down to the influence of pressure that the opposition puts you under.
Put under enough pressure, everyone makes mistakes. Essentially, that is what team sport is about — the ability to put a group of individuals under sufficient strain that eventually something gives. For me, this is what makes top level sport so intoxicating to watch.
The higher the level, the narrower are the margins, ergo the greater the relative importance of little mistakes.
Leicester Tigers were like a wounded animal and they did not need a second invitation. They were afforded several chinks of light and once they got a glimpse of victory, sheer will to win saw them through.
It is that edge that characterises the Leicester mentality and they deserve credit for it.
Many teams have visited Welford Road and come away with nothing.
Ulster players and supporters know that victory was tantalisingly close.
Yet, with nothing tangible to show other than our utmost respect for an enormous effort, Ulster’s ambitions in the Heineken Cup hang by a thread.
Bonus points are now the main currency. While tries aplenty are essential against Aironi, the final Pool game away in France against Clermont is already shaping up to be the mother of all battles.
There will be no better initial preparation than to learn the lessons from last weekend.