Ulster bonus material finally shown
A week ago, in the wake of their 24-17 RaboDirect Pro12 victory over Scarlets, I wrote in terms of Ulster having achieved the first of five pre-Christmas goals.
Friday night’s 31-10 rout of Aironi in the Heineken Cup means they are now 40% of the way towards their end-of-December destination.
Taking past results to be a reasonable yardstick by which to measure probability, they could well be three-fifths of the way there come 4.15 on Saturday afternoon when the final whistle sounds on their Monza re-match with the Italians at Stadio Brianteo.
Consider: Friday night was Ulster’s sixth competitive meeting with Aironi. Like each of the previous five it ended in victory.
It was their third Heineken Cup clash and as with the previous two the win was supplemented by a possibly crucial bonus point.
On the only previous occasion on which Ulster faced Aironi on Italian soil in this competition — 11 months ago at Stadio Zaffanella — they required a maximum five points in order to progress into the quarter-finals.
They scored six tries en route to a 43-6 romp.
Now those are very impressive statistics.
But what stood out in the aftermath of Ulster’s latest triumph over Aironi was the victors’ moderate language and the single-mindedness they displayed in talking about a job still only half done at this point.
To a man they stressed the need to back up Friday night’s emphatic victory with another five-point display this Saturday.
They spoke of the need to tighten up aspects of their play and — the fact that they scored five tries notwithstanding — expressed disappointment that there were other chances they had failed to take.
Coach Brian McLaughlin said: “We played exceptionally well at times, but we’re not just the finished article yet.”
He took particular satisfaction from full-back Adam D’Arcy’s all-important try right on half-time when Aironi were down to 14 men, the scorer’s opposite number, Giulio Toniolatti, having been sent to the sin-bin by referee Andrew Small.
D’Arcy’s touchdown came after sustained pressure during which Ulster built through the phases.
“We showed a lot of patience and a lot of good rugby ability with the ball,” he pointed out.
It was qualified praise, however, with McLaughlin adding: “At the same time there were chances that we let go.”
And while he described his side’s scrum as having been “excellent” he was less impressed with Ulster’s line-out.
“At times it was good but at other times we let them get a couple of balls off us so we’ve got to look at making sure that when we get the ball we’re clinical with it.
“We’ve got to make sure that we play in the right areas of the pitch because if we don’t they could cause us a fair few problems,” he said.
No hint of complacency there, nor when he added: “We know it’s going to be exceptionally tough over there.”
John Afoa, the World Cup-winning New Zealander, was in tandem with the coach in highlighting plus and minus points.
“The scrum went okay at times and the line-out was pretty good but I think the breakdown is something we need to address,” the tight-head reckoned.
But he was encouragingly positive about the Ulster scrum.
“The combination is coming with Rory (Best) and Tom (Court) and Johann and the boys in the back five.
“Everything is coming along nicely,” said the 18st 8lbs Kiwi.
And he was hugely complimentary towards Heineken Cup debutant Paddy McAllister who had to start at loose-head with Court’s game time restricted to 30 minutes as per the IRFU’s Player Management Programme.
“Paddy’s good, he’s a real talent,” Afoa said.
“We put a lot of pressure on him during the week and me and Rory were really happy with the way he went,”he added.
D’Arcy, too — whilst delighted with the five-point win and his personal five-point contribution — diluted his pleasure with a dash of caution.
“It’s only half-time,” D’Arcy stated.
“There’s a lot of work to be done to get another five points over there,” the Australian added.