In the wake of their memorable victory over Northampton Saints last Friday night at Franklin’s Gardens, Ulster have been acknowledged and applauded by all and sundry.
Mark Anscombe’s side enjoyed fully-merited plaudits, not least for having earning themselves a bonus point by virtue of scoring four excellent tries in that majestic win.
But the foundation on which that memorable victory was built was Ulster’s magnificent defence which ensured their line was not breached, despite everything the Aviva Premiership giants threw at it.
The statistics are remarkable: Northampton had 70 per cent of possession and the same percentage of territory.
Their 90 per cent line-out success was more than double that of Ulster (44 per cent).
They held sway in the scrum, too — 85 per cent success rate to Ulster’s 78 per cent. And they carried further — 375 metres in comparison to 226.
But where Ulster were vastly superior was in their tackling. They made 129 tackles to Northampton’s 46.
The hosts’ top three were Tom Wood who made six, followed by Courtney Lawes and Calum Clarke with four apiece.
Compare that to Ulster’s leading tackle-makers — Chris Henry 17, Rory Best 16, Iain Henderson 11. That was the level of intensity and consistency which underlined the win.
Afterwards the praise was unanimous, with broadcasters and journalists vying for adjectives befitting the winners’ defensive master-class.
The Rugby Paper’s assessment was: “Everywhere Northampton looked for attack they hit the white wall of Ulster defence.”
Planet Rugby hailed the rearguard resolution, saying: “Northampton piled on the pressure in the closing stages but were unable to breach a resolute Ulster defence, with the visitors even surviving having flanker Henderson sin-binned for not releasing a tackled player on the ground.”
As per Northampton Saints’ own club website: “The four tries kept the scoreboard ticking over, but it was the irrepressible and impregnable defence which was Ulster’s foundation and overwhelmed whatever Saints tried to throw at it.
“Around the fringes the big runners were stopped. Out wide the pace men could not break through. Indeed, wherever there was a green shirt with the ball there seemed to be two defenders in white, the first stopping the runner and the second keeping the maul in the air and more often than not either forcing a turn-over or slowing down the play enough to allow the rest of the Ulster defence to get back in position.”
One of those whose tackling stood out by virtue of its timing, ferocity and efficiency in getting the job done was inside-centre Paddy Wallace.
In view of the way he played last Friday night it is very interesting to recall something he said on the eve of last May’s Heineken Cup final against Leinster at Twickenham.
“With Paddy (Jackson) inside me and Darren (Cave) on the outside, we’re very confident in our little unit there.
“Reducing their momentum
when they have the ball will be the key. Actually all their backs are capable of turning the ball over in those wide areas and slowing our ball down which will slow down the type of game we want to play.
“So if we can flip that, we can limit their opportunities. We’ve just got to starve them of opportunities.”
While it did not come off at Twickenham, that is exactly what a fired-up Wallace and company — that ‘little unit’ — did on Friday night at Franklin’s Gardens where it proved to be a perfect winning formula.
Reflecting on the fact that people have been highlighting his defensive display, Wallace said: “It’s funny how perception goes in rugby.
“I haven’t watched the game back but from what I’ve heard the commentators mentioned my defence a few times and that kind of snowballs. Sky talk about it, other people start to talk about it and it just grows.
“I’ve been happy with my defence for a while. There was a question mark early on in my career but I’ve felt pretty solid for a number of years now.
“It was a tough ask in New Zealand during the summer when I was brought in for the last Test. I got a lot of bad press out of that from certain parts of the media.
“But with Ulster I’m really happy with my game and I’m really enjoying it. It helps when that’s how you feel about it.”
He dismissed any suggestion of a special emphasis on Ulster’s defence, and idle gossip about hours during which they do nothing else.
“During the week we have a day when we concentrate more on defence, but the next day we concentrate more on attack, with a bit of defence in it,” he said.
Offering an explanation for Ulster’s strength in that area, he said: “We have a bit more consistency now that Jonny (Bell) has been doing that job for a few years now and he has been able to stamp down his way of coaching and his style of defence.
“He keeps high standards so he’s never totally happy about our overall performance in a game. Nothing’s ever perfect, of course, so there’s always something to work on.”