Biarritz: a bump on the road or a crash?
Tonight Ulster face the most significant match of their season to date.
“What, bigger than last weekend’s game with Biarritz?” I hear you ask.
Because Ulster’s reaction to what happened in Sunday afternoon’s second half at Parc des Sports Aguiléra will go some way towards proving if that was a 40-minute blip or evidence of something more serious.
In car parlance, were they halted by a puncture or a real crash? That’s what the supporters want to know.
That they do is understandable given that last season, following the trauma of events in Europe which went against them, Ulster completely lost their way — and with that a string of Magners League matches.
Since then, of course, in a bid to ensure there is no repetition of that collapse and in the hope of guaranteeing themselves a Heineken Cup run beyond the usual six group-stage matches, Ulster — at considerable expense — have recruited vastly experienced, high quality players in Springboks Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar, plus Tim Barker.
It is for that reason that tonight’s Murrayfield match is so vitally important.
Professional sport is an impatient, demanding world in which the only currency that counts is the results achieved on a per-pound-invested basis.
Ulster and the IRFU have speculated heavily. As a consequence, the level of expectation — and with it, pressure — has risen somewhat.
So can this expensively assembled, new-look Ulster get back up off the canvas straight away, or will they spend time on their backsides recovering from last weekend blow? In other words, how much damage did it do? Was it one of knock-out proportions or were they merely winded?
With Ireland’s four-match Autumn International Series fast approaching, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin will hope to see evidence that it was a case of the latter rather than the former.
He knows that with Rory Best, Tom Court, Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble out of the frame, November — which will see trips to high-flying Cardiff Blues and Benetton Treviso, who have already beaten Scarlets and Leinster at Stadio Monigo — is going to be a tough month.
McLaughlin has spent the past few days stressing that Sunday’s second-half horror show was a hiccup. Tonight he will need to see proof.
“We said at the start of the season that when we play the best teams in Europe we want to be able to compete. We feel that in the first half, against Biarritz, we competed brilliantly.
“Our setpiece was excellent, our scum and line-out were exceptionally strong. We |believe we defended reasonably well and at times we did get opportunities but we didn’t polish them off,” he has said.
“In the second half we made poor option choices. We didn’t hold onto the ball and we maybe tried to pull a few rabbits out of hats at 10-3 when we didn’t need to.
“Those are things we’ve got to learn from. We’ve got to learn to say, ‘Wait a minute, 10-3? All we need is a penalty to bring us back into the game. There’s no need to panic’.
“That’s the composure we’ve talked about all this week.
“The great thing about such a short turn-around is that we can get it out of our system fast.”
That is a view echoed by the players who, to a man, have been singing off the same song-sheet in welcoming the opportunity to return to action and make good the damage by getting back to winning.
McLaughlin’s assessment was: “We know we can go to Edinburgh and continue on our unbeaten ways.”
If Ulster do that, it will go some way towards silencing those who, after one defeat, already have begun to voice serious concerns that 2010/11 could be another case of under-achievement.
Tonight will tell them much about their team’s mettle, mental strength and on-field ability in the wake of last weekend’s massive disappointment.
There is a line in The Wonder Years where Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) says: “Growing up doesn't have to be so much a straight line as a series of advances and retreats.”
In the aftermath of Biarritz, where they retreated, Ulster must now advance afresh in order to prove that they are continuing to grow.