Heineken Cup: Defeat could be the making of Ulster
The late, great American golfer Sam Snead, famously observed: “The mark of a great player is in his ability to come back. The great champions have all come back from defeat.”
As I journeyed back from Milton Keynes following Ulster’s 23-13 Heineken Cup defeat by Northampton Saints, I recalled those words. They rang very true.
At this stage Ulster are not a great rugby team. They are, however, a very good one with the potential to become great and Sunday’s quarter-final defeat, painful though it was, may just prove to have been an important milestone along the way.
At this stage the players will still be hurting. That is natural. Indeed, there would be much greater cause for concern if they weren’t feeling the pain.
They will feel it afresh when they sit down to analyse what happened at stadium:mk — a venue their coach Brian McLaughlin described as having been “magnificent”.
Why? Because they will know Ulster contributed much to their own downfall.
With under three minutes gone, they had gifted the Aviva Premiership side a seven-point lead.
Ian Humphreys kick-off was not deep enough and, as a result, Northampton set up the first of those driving mauls for which they are famous. Subsequent to that was a knock-on by Andrew Trimble when, with that same passage continuing, the Saints hoisted a high ball to test Ulster’s back three. The resultant scrum, ultimately, led to loosehead giant Soane Tonga’uiha’s try, converted by Stephen Myler.
If only the Tongan prop’s input had ended there. But it didn’t, for in the second-half he played a major part in his side’s recovery from a 13-10 interval deficit.
That upturn in Northampton’s fortunes stemmed from their domination of scrum and line-out. Prior to half-time Ulster had looked good. After it, however, Northampton improved in those set pieces and Ulster could not turn the tide.
But in keeping with those words by Snead, what are the prospects of Ulster now coming back from defeat?
Good; very, very good. Sunday’s defeat was their first since February 13 and having chalked up six successive Magners League they are on target for a last-four finish in that competition.
They are good enough to continue to do well in Europe next season, too, using the Milton Keynes experience as a vital building block. For it is worth noting that 12 months earlier it was Sunday’s victors who were in the position in which Ulster now find themselves, Northampton having just been beaten 33-19 by Munster at Thomond Park in April 2010.
They banked that experience, learned the lesson and moved on, determined not to fall short again should similar circumstances present themselves. Ulster can do likewise and that now is their goal, a point underlined by coach Brian McLaughlin.
Expressing his appreciation of the 4,000 supporters who travelled from Ulster to Berkshire where they were joined by upwards of 1,000 exiles, McLaughlin said: “They were magnificent.
“I was so proud of our team and of our fans. They were a credit to the province and my hope for them is that in future days like that will be the norm rather than an exception.”
There is no good reason why that should not be the case. Leinster and Munster have proved that the Irish provinces are a match for Europe’s best, witness the regularity with which both have graced the latter stages of the Heineken Cup.
Ulster can take their place at that table, too. In Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg they have a trio of Springboks around whom they can continue the already-advanced building process.
All Blacks prop John Afoa is on his way to replace departing tighthead, BJ Botha. Remember, too, that Stephen Ferris was missing on Sunday. His return will be a huge plus.
To the plethora of promising home-bred young backs add Jared Payne, the New Zealand centre/full-back who is joining from Auckland Blues.
He has class, plus the experience acquired from regular appearances at the highest level of club rugby in the southern hemisphere.
So do not view Sunday as having been the end of something; instead see it as being an important lesson learned en route to even better times.
“The great champions have all come back from defeat.”