Tyrone Howe: Streetwise approach is proof there’s reasons to be cheerful
Last year Ulster, in their opening match of the season, underperformed and rightly took a cuffing from the Gwent Dragons.
How different confidence will be this week with a decent win in a proper competitive tussle against the Ospreys — exactly what the team needed.
Coach, Brian McLaughlin, will be delighted as there were quite a few positives to be taken from the game and encouraging signs, while leaving plenty of room for improvement.
Most importantly, Ulster won a match that last season I believe they would have lost. How often did we witness Ulster in a potential winning position only to give away soft possession, territory or even gift the opposition an intercept try? On Friday night Ulster saw the direct benefits of being a bit more streetwise and it augurs well for the season.
The aspect that stood out for me most was the energetic and dynamic nature of Ulster’s swarming defence. The impact of the tackle itself often disrupted the Ospreys’ ability to recycle the ball quickly.
Moreover, the correct decisions were taken when to commit further players to the breakdown and compete for the ball or simply to reorganise the defensive line.
Time and time again Ulster had virtually a full line of defenders ready to repel the next Ospreys attack.
The players will take heart from the fact that most of the points that the Ospreys registered were direct consequences of Ulster’s mistakes rather than the Welsh side proactively creating these opportunities themselves.
Conversely, Darren Cave’s try was a beauty and will give incontrovertible proof that when things are done well, Ulster can score against the best. Quality ball off the lineout, powerful carries with dummy runners and quick recycled ball allowed play to be swept down the short side with an overlap of players.
It was notable, too, the role that new fullback, Adam D’Arcy played by stepping into the first receiver position and delivering the miss pass which gave Cave the space to back himself.
The performance though was far from flawless. The restarts were a shambles and too often there were lapses in concentration, particularly after Ulster had scored, that allowed the Ospreys to get back into the game.
On occasions Ulster played too much rugby in their own half, when a well-worked kick could have relieved the pressure. This is one of Niall O’Connor’s greatest strengths and with Ospreys’ kicker, Dan Biggar, in such superlative form, running the ball and flirting with the referee on your own ten metre line is risky stuff.
On that subject, too often have Ulster suffered at the hands of marginal refereeing decisions, so the players are due more than the odd decision to redress the balance.
Lee Byrne’s yellow card was way over the top and certain penalties against the Ospreys for offside were, at best, marginal.
Nonetheless, this is all part of the game and I am convinced that Ulster received the benefit of the doubt more for their positive play and offensive defence than the vagaries of a particular referee.
Neither coaches nor players will get too carried away with one result.
This match was but one in a long and hard season, however, victory against the champions offers a platform from which to build performances for the rest of the season.
It would be spoiled slightly were Ulster not to come away from Italy this weekend with a victory.
The players from Aironi Rugby will be no pushovers, but to hold lofty ambitions you have to put away the teams that you expect to be at the wrong end of the League come the end of the season.
In this regard, any visit to Italy is a must-win game and even at this early stage, it would put a smile on the face just to look at the Magners table and peer down at the majority of other teams.