Tyrone Howe: Ulstermen will be hungry to rise up again
So much has happened over the last ten days that it is difficult to remember what position Ulster Rugby was in after the opening couple of weeks to the season.
For tragic reasons, we have seen how amazing the sport of rugby can be in terms of supporting each other off the pitch. The minutes of silence and sounds of ‘Stand Up For The Ulstermen’ around the UK and Ireland last weekend were testament to all that is good within our game.
To snap back into action, I watched the rousing, full-blooded and high quality interprovincial between Ulster and Munster which gave me a timely reminder of just how good the sport is on the pitch as well.
It was as intense as any former encounter — rarely are these games any different, that’s just the way it is.
The bulk of the Munster squad may not just be quite so stacked with household names but whoever throws on that red shirt is imbued with an acute sense of pride and history.
It drives Munster players on and, while they invariably display rugby of a high quality, it is their forceful physical intensity that is the hallmark of their performances.
They are unashamedly confrontational and they give you nothing.
One of the biggest compliments that I can give Ulster is that there now appears to be exactly the same individual and collective mentality and approach to our own rugby. It seems to make these fixtures even more compelling.
Munster play smart rugby and it was interesting to see two of their early plays trying to keep the Ulster defensive line honest.
Ian Keatley chipped the ball over the heads of Ulster’s upcoming centres, and while Ulster did well to recover possession, the point was made and it ever so slightly slowed the line speed.
When you couple this with the early advantage that Munster had at the breakdown it was no surprise that Ulster struggled to get into the game.
Once again, however, it was composure in that vital period — either side of half-time that really made the difference and allowed Ulster to close a ten point gap down to four.
The game provided the stage for us to have a real look at Jared Payne. We have had to wait a while as he recovered from injury last season, but having him in Ulster’s ranks is an extra bonus.
If Nick Williams is wowing us up front, the ability of Payne to counterattack with pace, strength and guile will undoubtedly test many sides this year.
What is, for me, most striking about their play is that in-built Kiwi instinct to keep the ball alive in and after contact, and it might just be the difference this season.
With only two rounds of matches to go before the start of the Heineken Cup, the next two games are hugely important.
Firstly, it is imperative that Ulster’s players get refocused after the trauma of the last ten days, secondly international players need game time in order to get fully match fit, thirdly Mark Anscombe needs to start closing in on his strongest starting XV, and finally team performance needs to be honed in order to get off to the most emphatic start in Europe — a home victory and ideally with a bonus point.
There is no doubt that the rugby ability and doggedness is there to enable Ulster to win over in Cardiff.
The victory against the Ospreys provided the surest foundation, but after recent events the test may well be more mental than physical.
The wealth of experience in the squad will recognise this, and maybe Mark Anscombe, as a foreigner, is exactly the person to demand that focus returns to what happens on the pitch.
It is essential that Ulster emerges from Friday evening feeling that an element of control has been restored.
There is no doubt that the darkest of shadows has been cast over the season, but in the next few weeks it is imperative that the players provide some rays of light for the Ulster rugby family.
We need our rugby players back and on form.