Last weekend was a good weekend. Lest we forget them, Tommy Bowe powered in for a last minute try...Neil McMillan captained London Harlequins ...and Roger Wilson touched down for Northampton..
Collectively, it was even better for Ulster, as forwards and backs combined to finally deliver a consistent performance over eighty minutes and deservedly beat a much-weakened, but still dangerous Munster side.
Finally, if you add Liverpool’s sacking of Stamford Bridge to the mix, you really can have very little cause for complaint.
There was such a sense of relief when Ulster achieved that elusive win against Edinburgh several weeks ago, but it was a poor game against a poor team – no matter, the win was everything.
However, the victory against Munster was something a bit different and properly gave the crowd much to cheer about.
In a previous article I stated my serious concern about the absence of attacking ambition, nous and execution.
Statistics rarely lie – in the first six matches of the season, Ulster scored an average of about ten points.
In the last two games, the average has gone up to over twenty. Clear improvement and the boys are beginning to grow confidence in their ability to run at the opposition.
They are starting to find the gaps and crucially come away with points when opportunities arise. More importantly, Ulster are beginning to create these opportunities themselves.
It was backed up by a sound defensive effort, the performance underpinned by what supporters look for most and appreciate best – raw passion and intensity.
One of the key contributing factors to the performance was, quite simply, that every player did his job. The set-piece was solid, the ball carriers got Ulster on the front foot, the ruck was better resourced, the passes generally went to hand and the backs ran onto the ball at pace.
None more so than Timoci Nagusa who hit a beautiful line at full throttle to combine with Paddy Wallace for the first score.
Try two wasn’t too dissimilar and in a footrace there will be precious few wingers who can live with the Fijian wing for pace. While Nagusa will deservedly get the plaudits, the slick hands from Rory Best and perfectly weighted pass from Robbie Diack also deserve particular mention. For both tries, a change of angle and pace together with a quality pass did the damage.
In Isaac Boss’s try, we also saw the attacking potential offered by a dominant scrum. By managing to put the Munster front row under so much pressure that the scrum was forced to wheel, Alan Quinlan and the rest of his bac k row were on completely the wrong
side when Boss made his decisive break down the blindside. Beware the wounded animal – Boss had a point to prove and he was not to be denied.
But the key moment for me was the defensive effort from Bryn Cunningham late in the first half when he denied Anthony Horgan what seemed a certain try.
In recent weeks, Rory Best, has called on the players to look to the Ulster fullback as an example to follow and how right the Ulster captain was.
Cunningham sensed the danger and sprinted out of the blocks well before Horgan looked destined to score. Flat out over at least forty metres, Ulster’s hero didn’t break stride and timed his intervention to perfect effect. It was not only incredible awareness and timing, more than anything else it displayed a resolute will to deny the score.
It had a huge impact as it meant that Ulster went in at halftime with a healthy lead rather than having it snaffled away from them shortly before the break.
The Ulster fullback has been a model of consistency in his many years in the Ulster shirt.
On this occasion, the rest of his Ulster teammates responded accordingly and refused to let Munster get a sniff from then on.
It is no surprise that the intensity and energy levels were right up there on Saturday night, as any fixture against Munster is ample motivation on its own, no matter what the personnel on the pitch.
The big challenge, now, is now to push on from this performance and look for continued improvement. Ulster needs to establish last Saturday’s performance as the minimum acceptable base level of performance for the rest of the season.
The team is getting better and the players can now look forward to a vitally important fixture against Connacht with renewed confidence and optimism.
Finally. At last. Thank goodness. Now let’s keep it going.