Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Tyrone Howe: Who cares how Ulster won at the Aviva?

Thank you Ruan Pienaar. While there were other major contributions on the Lansdowne Road turf last Saturday, the presence of the South African really was the difference between winning and losing.

Was this a game that Ulster could have lost? Absolutely. But there have been plenty of occasions this season where Ulster’s positive play has gone unrewarded or they have been dealt the misfortune of a refereeing error.

Over the course of the season one hopes that these factors even themselves out, but Ulster will have every reason to watch the video and wonder how they came out of the game with their noses in front.

Does it matter? Not one jot. Semi-finals are about winning. We have become so used to watching Munster and Leinster get to this stage that it has a certain surreal feel about it, but it is a magnificent achievement for the players and coaches.

It was like a trip down memory lane. Those who missed 1999 got a glimpse of the past. The colour, noise, atmosphere, intensity — the pageantry. For the players, however, it was business and oh how they tested our nerves.

Stuff the previous victories, we knew that it was going to be close, as that is the nature of semi-finals. In fact, the match was exactly as I feared. Within two minutes Edinburgh had exactly what they wanted — fast, frenetic and, above all, loose rugby.

They hardly kicked the ball out of play meaning that there were few set-piece opportunities from which Ulster could set a platform.

This lack of structure was the main way that Edinburgh were able to hurt Ulster. With nothing to lose, the ability to make those 50-50 passes and keep the ball alive almost worked. Ulster started slipping off tackles, then came up slowly or stood still on the defensive line and Edinburgh continually got across the gainline, recycled the ball and forced Ulster to scramble. But Ulster scrambled for their lives.

What undid Edinburgh was a combination of their own profligacy, certain refereeing decisions and an Ulster team that learned from the first half and went on to play the more controlled, disciplined and pressure rugby in the second 40 minutes.

To Ulster’s credit, the team regrouped, responded to the situation and returned to the pitch with a clear idea of what was necessary. Get more structure into the game and put pressure on Edinburgh’s skills by playing in their half of the pitch.

Ulster squeezed the Scots and inched their way to victory. Considering the level of difficulty and the pressure of the situation, Pienaar’s boot was nothing short of immaculate.

Maybe it is all a ruse from Ulster — make sure you enter the final as firm underdogs. For the players the only pressure now is to turn up at Twickenham and do justice to themselves, to the skill, physicality, organisation and mental strength within the team. Play close to their potential and they will have a chance. Of course, it will be incredibly difficult, but what do you expect from a Heineken Cup final.

In Leinster, they will face a complete team, yet they are not invincible. Having already seen off Munster, next on the list was always going to be Leinster. What better place to have a shot than a Heineken Cup final.

What is certain is that Ulster will be roared on by the greatest support in European, if not world rugby. This is now getting the rightful respect and acknowledgement that it deserves.

The nails have just under three weeks to grow back, the blood pressure has hopefully returned to a more normal state. But are you prepared to do it all again? You bet! If you can, get a ticket and head for Twickenham. Occasions like Saturday don’t come around too often. Heineken Cup finals are an even scarcer commodity.

These are special days.