Two of Irish rugby’s best known, most respected and highly decorated past-masters reckon Ulster are good enough to conquer Europe.
Provided, that is, they deploy Paul Marshall at scrum-half and Ruan Pienaar as his partner at number 10.
Munster maestro Donal Lenihan and Leinster legend Shane Horgan are the men in question and in view of the credentials, experience, knowledge and insight they boast, the case they present is a very reasonable one.
Now working as pundits with RTE, they made their points in the wake of Ulster’s RaboDirect PRO 12 destruction of Scarlets on Friday night at Ravenhill and Munster’s capitulation against Cardiff Blues 24 hours later at Musgrave Park.
Lenihan, (53), was tour manager for the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia in 2001. Capped on 52 occasions for Ireland — 11 times as captain — the Cork-born and bred lock forward featured in the Triple Crown-winning sides of 1982 and ’85 and in the 1983, 1986 and 1989 Lions squads.
Horgan, (34), announced his retirement last March after finally conceding defeat to a knee injury. In the course of an outstanding career he made three Test appearances for the 2005 Lions and won 65 Ireland caps, scoring 21 tries at international level.
In the blue of Leinster his phenomenal record was 207 outings, in which he scored 71 tries, helping his province to the first two of their three Heineken Cups and a brace of Celtic League titles.
“Apart from that one blip against Northampton in the last round of the Heineken, every time they go out they seem positive. There’s a clarity about the way they want to play and there’s a good variety to their game,” was Lenihan’s assessment of the current Ulster side.
“Their set-piece has picked up immeasurably; Tom Court is having a great year.
“But I think they have a decision to make,” Lenihan suggested. “If they want to win a Heineken Cup they have to seriously look at the option of Pienaar at 10. And Luke Marshall should come into the reckoning as well at 12.”
Horgan was in agreement.
“I think they’re an excellent team,” was his evaluation of Mark Anscombe’s side who entertain Glasgow Warriors in a crucial Heineken Cup Pool 4 game on Friday night (8pm).
“It’s the strongest Ulster team I have ever seen, by a long way. Their pack is looking very strong and their scrum is rock-solid; they demolished Northampton in Northampton a few weeks ago.
“But I totally agree with Donal; they have to bite the bullet and make a very tough decision (at out-half). I think it’s the one position on the field that’s not right for them.
“If they play Ruan Pienaar at 10 and (Paul) Marshall at nine they’ve got a really, really strong side pushing towards the Heineken. They’re a really strong side anyway, but you’ve got a potential Heineken Cup-winning team with that side on the field.”
Lenihan insisted: “You’ll never win a Heineken Cup unless you have dominance at half-back and leadership from number 10.
“Paddy Jackson is a player for the future, there’s no question about that. He’s 21, not quite at the level you need to be to win a Heineken Cup.”
Horgan agreed. “I think he (Jackson) is solid, but you need something more special. He may very well go on to be a special player, but at the moment he’s solid within a team of very special players.”
Lenihan recalled the circumstances of Pienaar’s decision to join Ulster at the start of the 2010/11 campaign when David Humphreys pulled off a major coup in persuading the World Cup-winning Springbok to move north of the equator.
“He wanted to play scrum-half and that was one of the guarantees he was given coming over. But he was out-half against the Lions (in 2009).
“But I now think he has bought into the Ulster ethos and winning the Heineken Cup would make up for anything,” Lenihan pointed out. “That’s your legacy and I think it’s now needs must.”
Horgan, too, felt that circumstances had now changed, for which reason he believed Pienaar would be amenable to a switch to play at 10 if Ulster thought that would boost their chances of winning European club rugby’s biggest prize.
“Maybe when you’re coming over to Ulster you want to make sure you’re playing nine if you’re not challenging for cups,” he said.
“But all of a sudden you’ve an opportunity to affect the game at 10 and go on and win a Heineken Cup, so that (consideration) will be gone out the window,” Horgan reckoned.