Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Ulster sent out a message: we're still the team to beat

Ulster's Johann Muller and Stuart Olding celebrate the final whistle Ulster's win over Leinster, their first in Dublin since 1999
Ulster's Johann Muller and Stuart Olding celebrate the final whistle Ulster's win over Leinster, their first in Dublin since 1999

The cold front has lifted, the sun has come out and the thaw is under way. Am I talking about the weather or Ulster rugby after last weekend?

In many ways, both have mirrored each other, but last Saturday's victory over Leinster was exactly what the team needed to lift the gloom. To all the naysayers and doom-merchants out there the Ulster players sent out a clear message – do not panic, we can still produce the goods.

The win had serious tangible impact in that it consolidated the chances of a home play-off in the RaboDirect but more importantly it was a mighty performance full of courage and no lack of skill which has lifted confidence enormously and will now galvanise the players.

In recent seasons, Leinster have struggled in the opening six weeks. What has invariably kicked off their season was the interprovincial fixture against Munster at the Aviva the week before the first round of the Heineken Cup.

Even with European rugby just around the corner it has developed into a game of massive intensity – it demands that players are jolted out of any potential malaise.

Last weekend's fixture served exactly the same purpose for Ulster. The scale and intensity of the challenge brought out something a bit special from the Ulster players. One hopes that it will provide the catalyst for high level performance for the rest of the season.

The victory was impressive for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, it took place in Leinster's own back yard which, the record books show, is not an easy place to visit.

Secondly, it was a strong Leinster team, whose defence operated effectively for the vast majority of the game and Ulster had to work incredibly hard and do things well to break it down – for Ulster's two tries every inch of the width of the pitch was used.

Thirdly, it was a proper tussle full of intensity and ideal preparation for a Heineken Cup quarter-final – Ulster had to show huge character, courage and composure in clawing back a seven points margin to create a winning position.

Most important was the performance, i.e. the way that Ulster played both in defence and attack. For me, the very first play of the game made the most vigorous statement. It demonstrated exactly how the players and coaches wanted to play the game.

Andrew Trimble's aggressive hunger for work seems to be insatiable at the moment and Paddy Jackson got his blindside winger into the action as early as possible. A dummy line from Nick Williams totally bluffed Jamie Heaslip into committing himself and Trimble hit the most sumptuous angle to exploit the gap. A stunning offload from Darren Cave kept the movement going and the ball ended up going wide with the team having made plenty of positive yardage.

It may not have led to a try but many facets of what has made Ulster so potent this season were included in that first sweeping movement.

Last week, I recalled a moment where I was directly challenged by my coach to play like an Ireland player and wondered whether it was time for the same message to be made to Ulster's international contingent. Oh, how they responded.

However, one unsung hero deserves special mention. You cannot achieve anything in professional rugby without a solid scrum.

Ricky Lutton made his first start for Ulster packing down in the cornerstone position of tighthead prop against not only an international class prop, but also a prospective Lions prop, Cian Healy.

Time after time the scrum engaged and Ulster stayed solid. Lutton set the foundation for Ulster's win and can hold his head high. In fact, to a man everyone stood up.

What has been lacking most over the last few weeks are confidence and self-belief. With so many starting players returning at exactly the right time, Ulster's squad suddenly oozes strength again.

Above all, Ulster's players and coaches showed that the ability is still there, and the style and the resolute determination is back.

To Saracens and the rest of Europe a clear message was sent out – the fire still burns brightly and, despite what some may have suggested in the last fortnight, this season is by no means over.

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