Ulster have hit back at claims that they sold their fans short by fielding an under-strength team against Munster on Saturday night.
Writing in this newspaper yesterday, former Munster, Ireland and Lions fly-half Tony Ward said local rugby supporters had every right to feel short-changed by having to watch what was virtually a second-string XV lose their unblemished Rabodirect Pro12 league record courtesy of defeat to their inter-pro rivals at Thomond Park.
And Ward wrote: “I’m not quite sure quite how long the public will continue to support these hitherto-appealing festive derbies.
“Certainly in Limerick on Saturday there was a feeling of being conned. What could have been a great contest and great occasion, irrespective of the weather, turned into predictable one-way fare.”
Some 23,587 attended last weekend’s game, which saw Ulster finish on the wrong end of a 24-10 score.
Ulster’s response was to say that with the season now entering the critical stage, getting the balance right by maximising resources is the name of the game.
Attack coach Neil Doak said “you pick the best squad available while at the same time looking at where players can get rested.”
In football, Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson has been doing that — with a fair degree of success — for years.
Second-placed Scarlets, who face the table-toppers at Ravenhill tomorrow night, had been trounced 32-3 by Ospreys on Boxing Day, which meant Ulster coach Mark Anscombe knew that even if his depleted side lost in Limerick, they would still be nine points clear of their closest challengers.
Given that position of strength, he was not afraid to lose and certainly had no misgivings about gambling. In his eyes, what mattered was the bigger picture, namely tomorrow night’s match against Scarlets — for which his marquee players are available — followed by two weekends of Heineken Cup action against Glasgow in Belfast and Castres in France.
In the circumstances, nobody in the Ulster camp minded too much that the RaboDirect PRO12 pace-setters went down 24-10 at Thomond Park. It was a price they were willing to pay in order to give front-line players a much-needed break and allow others to have game time whilst simultaneously satisfying the requirements of the IRFU who, ultimately, are the players’ and coaching staff’s employers.
Doak underlined the point by saying: “Across the season you’ve got to look at selection and decide when to rest players to keep them fresh.
“There are going to be pockets when they’re away with Ireland; that’s the norm and that’s why you need a pretty big squad.
“Strength in depth is key and the teams which have that are the ones who are able to compete consistently throughout the year. We’ve grown that this year, which is why we’ve been able to compete when we’ve had guys away.”
“You always know around Christmas time that there are going to be Irish camps. That’s par for the course now so you pick the best squad available while at the same time looking at where other guys can get rested.”
Certainly the decision to omit players like South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar and New Zealanders John Afoa and Jared Payne had nothing whatsoever to do with any demands issued by Declan Kidney.
And with Tom Court omitted from last week’s Ireland camp, the decision to name him as a replacement on Saturday evening was taken with a view to giving Callum Black a start.