Tyrone Howe: Ulster must retain belief to help weather the storm
One of the first words that Mark Anscombe used to describe Ulster’s victory over Glasgow was messy. It was as literal as it gets.
The conditions were already greasy well before kickoff, but the downturn in the conditions meant that we were in for an evening that now seems to be the trademark when these two teams meet.
Yet recent matches between these two teams have been very tight. In the RaboDirect the teams had met five times — in four there were eight or less points separating the sides, while one was a difference of fourteen points.
Therefore, in registering a victory of seventeen points and scoring three tries Ulster went further than in plenty of recent matches.
I sometimes wonder when I played for Ulster whether we really believed that we could qualify for the knockout stages.
Despite having a European Cup win etched in the history of Ulster rugby, our and my expectation levels were lower than they should have been.
But what we did look forward to was hosting a big team at Ravenhill, because under the right circumstances we backed ourselves to pull off shock wins. Even as a winger, as frustrating as it was, I understood why we looked forward to the rain. You would look out and think to yourself that it was horrible out there, but you would also suspect that your opposite man was probably looking out of his window thinking ‘get me home’.
Wet weather rugby played to our strengths: the first option was a David Humphreys garryowen and we would chase like madmen and try to absolutely slot anything that got in the way. Make the statement early — it is horrible and it’s going to get worse.
It was heartening to see that the old ways haven’t been forgotten completely — the high ball was hoisted to test the confidence, organisation, communication and skill of the Glasgow players.
Time after time the Scots were found wanting. If you drop the high ball and display a lack of composure then you should expect another one. Ulster’s ‘kick chase’ was far more effective than the previous week and put pressure on those Glasgow players standing under the ball.
A combination of well-judged kicks, treacherous weather conditions and an effective chase from Ulster all conjured up errors which life a little easier.
Victory was secured through Ulster’s wet weather game — control, possession and playing in the right parts of the pitch through an effective kicking game. Impressive also was how all these aspects were complemented by skill and sleight of hand given the conditions.
As Ulster face a formidable challenge against Castres this Saturday, it will serve the players well to know that they also had to dig deep and display character when Glasgow pulled the scoreline back to four points. The players responded and closed out the game with two quality tries. Three qualifications in three seasons is a tremendous achievement.
The players will have to bring that same resilience to Castres.
They face a French team, no matter what the selection, that will try to be physically imposing and most likely try to eke out points through the boot of Rory Kockott.
Ulster’s defensive resolve will be sorely tested but the players also have to play some rugby, as a winning bonus point could be crucial in securing a home quarterfinal.
First, however, you have to put yourself into a winning position — quarter-by-quarter, point-by-point, and hopefully try-by-try.
Shorn of the services of Nick Williams, whose physical presence and ball-carrying will be a massive loss, the onus falls on the shoulders of his backrow colleagues.
Chris Henry needs to be inspirational, competition for places is getting the best out of Robbie Diack, while Roger Wilson needs to show all his experience.
Yes, it will test the breadth and depth of the squad, but Heineken Cups are not won by 15 men, they are won by high quality squads.
This is why Ulster should travel with real confidence and self-belief. Not only the team but the wider squad have produced quality and winning rugby this season.
It is possible, but Saturday has the feel of a real battle. Ulster need heaps of resolve, a little bit of luck and a ruthless edge in taking scoring opportunities.
The challenge is clear — either win well on Saturday or most likely face another daunting away fixture in the quarters. In which case, sure it may as well be this weekend.