Heineken Cup: Don’t heap pressure on Ulster to win it again
Had Brian McLaughlin been driving down Belfast’s Great Victoria Street about 11.45 yesterday morning, the no claims bonus on his car insurance probably would be a thing of the past.
The sight of his captain, Rory Best, two-thirds of the way up a ladder held by former Ireland skipper, Keith Wood, would not have done a lot to help the Ulster coach’s blood pressure at this stage of the season.
Wood was in town for the launch of the Bushmills Brother campaign in which the Co Antrim distillers have paired him with Best.
Bushmills Brothers draws on the spirit of friendship and celebrates the experiences and stories men across the world share. Wood and Best are perfect ambassadors — kindred spirits, both having worn the Ireland number two jersey with distinction in different generations.
Best revealed: “When I was growing up the sportsman I most wanted to be was Keith Wood. I admired his passion and his leadership on the pitch.
“Keith has always been on hand throughout my career to offer me advice and encouragement.”
Pointing to street artist Kev Largey’s impressive work, Best added: “It looks fantastic and it’s great to see our friendship portrayed in such a creative way.”
Munster’s Wood was equally complimentary towards the Ulsterman.
“Rugby is a great game for making friends and Rory is one of the guys I’ve got to know over the years. He’s a top bloke and a brilliant rugby player,” the famously bald hooker said.
Once back in the welcome warmth of the Crown Bar the talk turned to the Heineken Cup and Ulster’s prospects. Wood was adamant that no pressure should be heaped on McLaughlin’s evolving team.
He knows about pressure, having been a member of the Munster side beaten 9-8 by Northampton at Twickenham in the 2000 final, the season after Ulster created history by becoming the first Irish side to lift the Heineken Cup.
“Ulster are a proud province with a great rugby history,” he muses.
So how does he rate their chances 12 years on from the success enjoyed by Harry Williams’ side?
“Once you get to the knock-out stages, what you do at that point is built, almost entirely, on the back of experience.
“Now I saw the Northampton games last year in Munster and it was interesting watching the knock-out game as opposed to the Pool game.
“Their attitude in the Pool game was sort of laissez-faire. They lost, but they were fantastic. But then you saw them in the quarter-final; they tried to have a little bit of that same attitude and they just got blitzed off the field because Munster were a hard, cynical, cup-winning team who knew exactly what to do,” Wood says.
“Northampton learnt a lesson from that. They still have flaws and they’ve had a bad run with all their international players gone over the Six Nations.
“But those players have come back in now. They know where they are and they know exactly what they can do, so that puts all of the advantages on their side.
“In some ways that helps Ulster because it’s almost like a freebie for them. Ulster have been out of the knock-out stages for such a long time that there is no pressure on them.
“I won’t say that they have over-achieved, but they have definitely taken their first step towards step towards achieving what they’d like to achieve which is to be competitive in the final stages in Europe.”
How far might they go?
“I don’t think there should be any burden of expectation,” Wood points out.
“This is a young team, trying to grow, albeit that they’ve been boosted by a few imports.”
“Alright, they have to go out believing they can win because if they don’t do that then they have no chance. But don’t get them tied up in this thing of absolutely having to win.
“There is no need to do that because the expectation is that they won’t win. So they have to go out, enjoy the experience and learn from it rather than tightening up because winning has been made the be all and end all. It’s not that.
“That might sound defeatist, but it isn’t. Not at all. It’s an attempt to ease the pressure on Ulster who already have done more than most people thought they could in getting to the knock-out stage.
“That is great and I’m delighted for them; Irish rugby needs a strong Ulster side. By doing what they’ve done they have given themselves an opportunity to go forward.
“I actually think they have a good chance, but let’s not start adding to the pressure on them,” Wood warns.