Ulster deliver statement of intent
Published 05/10/2013 | 10:30
Over the past two seasons, Ulster have won a Heineken Cup quarter-final against Munster at Thomond Park, beaten Leinster in Dublin for the first time since 1999 and earned a memorable maiden victory on French soil by overcoming Castres at Stade Pierre-Antoine.
Indeed they have compiled quite the body of work away from their Ravenhill home in recent years.
Last night proved to be another away day to remember as Paddy Jackson's exemplary kicking performance led Ulster to an impressive 18-12 victory over a star-studded Ospreys side at the Liberty Stadium.
Jackson's kicking has been the subject of much debate ever since an error-strewn display on his Ireland debut against Scotland last February and, despite some consistently strong play in the loose in the early part of this season, there have still been some occasions when his performance off the tee has been less than convincing.
He was the star of the show last night, however, after a perfect six-from-six showing saw him contribute all of his team's points in the win and earn himself the man-of-the-match award in the process.
The Rugby Championship concludes today, with Ruan Pienaar starting South Africa's game against New Zealand on the bench, meaning that Ulster's Springbok goal-kicker is due back soon, but the sight of Jackson coming up big in such an important game as this one will be heartening for both Mark Anscombe as well as new Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
The early signs augured well for Ulster as, despite all the pre-match declarations regarding the need to play mistake-free rugby against their unbeaten hosts, Ospreys display was littered with errors in the opening minutes.
British and Irish Lions' hooker Richard Hibbard had his first line-out throw stolen by Johann Muller. Eli Walker fumbled the ball into touch after a tackle from Chris Henry and Dan Biggar had an ill-advised drop goal attempt blocked by Rory Best.
Unfortunately for Ulster that was the final display of poor judgement from the hugely talented Biggar.
The Welsh out-half appeared to put his side into a commanding position thanks to a kicking performance so clinical that even the most innocuous of Ulster mistakes were being penalised.
With the Autumn International series looming on the horizon, at a time when Rhys Preistland is returning from injury at Scarlets and Rhys Patchell's emergence at Cardiff continues, the perennial debate over who should occupy the No. 10 shirt for Wales is set to intensify over the next month.
The incumbent Biggar gave coach Warren Gatland a timely reminder of his undoubted talents.
The Osprey's goal-kicker, the only member of the Wales starting line-up from the Six Nations championship clinching victory against England last March who did not go on to be selected for the Lions tour to Australia in the summer, was ruthless off the tee and his kicking put his team into a 12-0 lead shortly after the half-time interval.
Then, however, came Jackson's series of telling interventions, which led Ulster to victory.
With Ospreys having won their last 10 home games in succession, as well as going undefeated in the first four rounds of PRO12 action this season, few will have suspected at that stage that Ulster would be returning to Belfast with four points.
Jackson and company will be especially pleased to have notched the morale-boosting win just as the season enters a hugely important phase.
With the Heineken Cup commencing next Friday, one concern for Mark Anscombe, however, will be the ever-increasing injury list ahead of his team's battle against the Leicester Tigers, champions of the Aviva Premiership last season, at Ravenhill.
Jared Payne, who has been Ulster's outstanding performer so far this season, missed the game with a virus while Craig Gilroy limped from the field in the first-half and spent the rest of the game on the sidelines applying ice to his injured ankle.
With Tommy Bowe unavailable last night due to a leg injury sustained last week against Treviso, John Afoa still absent and Pienaar not expected to return to Belfast after his international exertions until early next week, Ulster's preparation for their first European encounter of the year are far from ideal.
That, however, will be of little consternation today as the players revel in their first statement-making victory of the season.
It may not have been a vintage all-round display but, having been considered to be in crisis by some onlookers after suffering defeats in their opening two games, three wins from three since then have Ulster moving in the right direction. – albeit belatedly.