Tyrone Howe: Ulster have set new standard
Listening to the mock sarcasm of Swing Low Sweet Chariot ringing from the Ravenhill terraces, it really was a case of déjà vu.
I can remember standing on the pitch in 2004 hearing it and affording myself a wry smile as Ulster beat a very good Leicester side 33-0. Ravenhill last Friday night was stunningly cold and crisp and the rendition of English rugby’s favourite anthem warmed the cockles of my heart.
It will not have done much for Richard Cockerill, mind you. Head down, body slumped, it was clear that the Leicester Tigers coach was under no illusions about what was happening to his team. The 41-7 win for Ulster was nothing short of a rugby massacre.
The 2004 game was an occasion when everyone went home knowing that they had witnessed something special.
I say this with no hint of grudge that last Friday evening surpassed that achievement. Not just in terms of the scoreline, but more than anything else it was the magnitude of the performance.
I didn’t witness Ulster’s victories over Toulouse and Stade Francais in 1999 and the consequences of those victories are the stuff of folklore. Therefore, it’s difficult to make a comparison.
What I can say is that last Friday was the best performance that I have seen Ulster produce this century.
It was as if I had come full circle — I was able to cheer and roar my pure pleasure in the same way that supporters did for me and my team-mates in 2004. I know exactly how those supporters felt then and boy did it feel good.
The word ‘Ulster’ is on everybody’s lips in Northern Hemisphere rugby. Last season’s renaissance into the quarter-finals saw the team re-emerge onto the rugby map. They have now exploded into rugby’s consciousness.
We knew about the value of Pienaar, Afoa and Muller. Pedrie Wannenburg played his best game for Ulster and displayed rare vision for a South African back row. Above all, our own young guns put up their hands and said: ‘we want a piece of this too.’
How apt that Paul Marshall, surely Ulster’s most improved player of the season, claimed the bonus point try. As soon as he took off I let out a rather embarrassing screech, but putting his pace up against an exhausted Tigers team, there was only going to be one winner.
Rugby is all about taking your opportunities. In front of Declan Kidney, surely the names of Marshall, Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy were pencilled onto his Ireland squad sheet. And if not, why not?
Andrew Trimble was like a caged animal let loose to prowl, maraud and destroy. We can forgive his one blemish, as his contribution was immense.
A word also for Gilroy, in my old position on the left wing. What an experience for the young man and it was a night when he came of age.
He has it all — power, pace and in a rugby world where space is at a premium, his unique selling point is his incredible balance and quick feet.
He turned Geordan Murphy inside out in the space of a telephone box. If Gilroy was Australian or a Kiwi, he would be in the international squad learning from the best players in the country. He needs to be introduced now.
While the backs got the points, the forwards laid the foundations. Brian McLaughlin, in the lead-up to the game, said that to beat Leicester you have to beat them up front.
His pack took him at his word but instead employed their own verb — ‘batter.’ Their dominance of the breakdown and collisions, at times, almost felt too easy. Yet, it was founded on aggression and intelligence and gave the Pienaar/Humphreys partnership an armchair ride.
The confidence coursed through other facets of play — seeing tight five forwards offload intelligently is a rare and somewhat beguiling sight.
In short, this was a team — no, squad — performance.
Total rugby built on the foundations of a superb pack, controlling halfbacks and a backline with its radar on red alert for angles and space. The old principles are still the best — ruthless hunger for work, supporting your team-mates and rock solid defence.