Paddy Jackson forcing Joe Schmidt to take notice
Published 07/01/2014 | 01:30
They didn't turn up in Dublin, so we knew there'd be a Belfast reaction but, even by Ravenhill 'Stand up' standards, what transpired on Friday night was old time inter-provincial rugby at its scintillating best.
Ulster weren't just good they were brilliant while Munster, though slow out of the blocks, delivered a typically gutsy performance high on endeavour and physical commitment if lacking once again in accuracy and precision.
Both coaches should be equally pleased with the attitude and general welfare ahead of round five of the Heineken Cup. Rob Penney clearly has a lot more on his plate with injuries to Cathal Sheridan and Damien Varley on top of Conor Murray and Mike Sherry the players they replaced.
It looks like it will be a case of the two Duncans filling the void with ex CBC schools international Williams along with former Glenstal powerhouse Casey coming in at scrum half and hooker respectively.
Casey in particular made a massive impact upon his introduction for the hugely experienced Varley, who once again had been delivering a performance at the top of his game.
The former Wasps and Garryowen hooker has long been one of the most under rated players in a position in which Munster turns out quality operators by the truck load.
That said, Casey's cameo was mighty impressive. The fact that Munster deserved to take something on the long trek home but didn't tells you everything you need to know about the totality of this Ulster performance. This was at the other end of the spectrum to the RDS. Here was Team Ulster delivering the type of total package appropriate to the quality within this squad.
The frustration for Mark Anscombe, and indeed every Ulster follower everywhere, is the inconsistency in performance. Not just from match to match but often times from quarter to quarter.
If they can master that then the European Everest they crave is again well within their compass. Make no mistake, this squad in depth and quality is on a par with anything anywhere in Europe and yes, that includes Toulon, Castres, Toulouse and the rest.
In the next fortnight, opportunity knocks (against Montpellier and Leicester Tigers) to make the appropriate statement to the watching world. It is no longer acceptable to blow hot and cold.
Bear in mind players of the quality of Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris – Lions one and all – have still to return and then tell me there is a professional rugby squad with a better pedigree or more exciting potential anywhere.
The decision to run with Ruan Pienaar as main kicker is tactically sensible on two counts.
Firstly, it sees the brilliant Springbok accept the added responsibility he relishes while at the same time freeing up Paddy Jackson to concentrate on wider aspects to his already considerable playmaking game.
The more I see of Jackson the more impressive he looks. I think it highly significant that when he plays well then so too Ulster. He still needs to inject a little more conviction to his tactical kicking out of hand but beyond that he is fast becoming the near perfect link appropriate to the modern game.
Right now, he has to be marginally ahead of Ian Madigan in the race to fill the back up slot to Jonny Sexton (pictured) for the upcoming Six Nations.
I will be astonished if Joe Schmidt doesn't view recent evidence the same way. Nor is it that Madigan's not playing well but Jackson is growing into the role of responsibility for Ulster that comes with wearing David Humphreys' old shirt.
Jared Payne may still be some nine months away from Irish eligibility, but if his chosen position is to be outside centre then on all evidence to date it's looking pretty well timed? The other key performance at Ravenhill was delivered by Chris Henry and it too was timely.
Sean O'Brien's Six Nations absence is set to be a massive blow and little point in pretending otherwise but the Friday night battle between Henry and Peter O'Mahony at the breakdown (albeit each filling different roles) was as fascinating as it was revealing of two players destined surely to play alongside each other either side of Jamie Heaslip when wearing green.
A backrow of O'Mahony, Henry and Heaslip to face the Scots looks the right fit for me.
From Penney and Munster's perspective, this was a collective performance befitting the build up to the Heineken Cup fortnight ahead.
Of course there are still undeniable problems in creative and attacking terms, but when it comes to getting down and getting dirty, rolling up the sleeves from one to 23, this is a group worthy of wearing the red and the proud tradition it represents.
Most encouragingly for the head coach were big performances in Ravenhill from relatively new kids on the bock Casey, Ivan Dineen and Dave Foley, while Ian Keatley deserves special mention.
The Munster out-half deserves highlighting for the courage of his 80 minute performance in adversity.
It would have been so easy in the circumstances – with four or five kicks going astray – to drop the head and retreat into his shell, but the Munster No 10 showed real guts, the type you will not find in any coaching manual, and for that deserves enormous credit for his central part in the near complete second half turn around.
I have no doubt the same level of team performance will be reproduced at Ravenhill in three days time but it will be a week or so on from that again when the real Ulster, consistent Ulster, must stand up.
Come away from Welford Road –the Tigers' lair – with the spoils and everything is possible.
Last Friday's head to head showed Irish inter-provincial rugby at its very best. The trick now for victor and vanquished is to kick on from there. Whatever else, the dress rehearsal could scarcely have been any better... a classic of our times.