PRO12 defeat to Glasgow proves that Ulster must learn to land knockout blow
Trophies won’t reside at Kingspan until big-game issues are mastered
Knockout rugby, don't you just love it? Well, if you're an Ulster fan, probably not actually.
And added to the still intact statistic that no away side has prevailed in a PRO12 semi-final, is one that truly does make unsettling reading for all those with an interest in Ulster's fortunes.
Here goes. Since 2011, Ulster have played a total of 11 knockout games and have now managed to lose eight of them - including Friday's 16-14 defeat to Glasgow.
This pretty damning record sprung to mind from the wreckage wrought by Finn Russell's stunning conversion late on at Scotstoun.
As the Warriors supporters acclaimed their side's achievement at reaching a second successive PRO12 final - they have yet to secure the title - and keeping their two-year winning record in the league at Scotstoun intact, the ground's announcer bellowed "See you in Belfast next week" over the PA system.
If the stunned Ulster players were able to take anything in after Russell's touchline strike - once DTH van der Merwe's sensational try had tied the scores and set up a likely looking extra time - then the belted-out reminder that the Warriors were the ones going to the Kingspan Stadium must have heaped even further misery on those wearing white.
So, they have to address a major issue in coming out on top in knockout situations. And until that problem is conquered, there will be no prospect of gleaming items residing in the Kingspan trophy cabinet, or to put it more realistically, no PRO12 silverware to be had.
In fairness, winning at Scotstoun was always going to require something special.
Yes, but there's the rub as Neil Doak's squad had more than enough possession, territory and opportunity to seal this semi-final.
They put the Warriors on the back foot in the opening 40 minutes and even though Glasgow - playing into the breeze in the second half - managed to get their hands on the ball, they were still notably disjointed and error-ridden.
And yet the irony of all this was that Ulster were never comfortably ahead.
For all their hard work, they couldn't take the game to the point where Glasgow were unable to reach them with a sudden shift in fortune.
It came with a speed which was both unexpected and bewildering in the way it unfolded - to the extent that you began to wonder whether Ulster, who were leading 14-9, are perhaps jinxed.
Ricky Lutton's high contact with Niko Matawalu will doubtless join the unwanted pantheon of Ulster's horrible big game moments as the Fijian winger's cynical dive appallingly milked the situation and only ended up fuelling Ulster's deep feeling of grievance at some of the refereeing calls.
So, a scrum advantage to Ulster deep in Glasgow territory became a late penalty which shortly afterwards led to another one and from the lineout - the Warriors notably threw it short in an area that serially malfunctioned - sprang the 15-phase Van der Merwe try and that kick.
So, another season gone and yet another without a title triumph as Les Kiss prepares to come on board in the autumn. There was no eureka moment to identify how things ended like this, just a combination of events which helped undo them.
Their season began with the trauma of David Humphreys leaving and then the removal of Mark Anscombe and ended nearly 12 months on with the horror of an impossible looking conversion bisecting the posts to beat them.
Of course they shouldn't have been at Scotstoun for this semi-final, but the fundamental reason for that came about thanks to the dire defeats at Zebre, Munster and the Dragons.
And then there was the discipline which was truly woeful with Ulster finishing bottom of the PRO12's Fair Play League. Both the soft reverses and the player bans were unnecessary and hugely debilitating.
Yet they played some great stuff and possess an attacking backline - Doak's area of expertise - with enormous potential. They do have the ability to succeed, but with no trophy since 2006 you do wonder if that has had a deeply unsettling effect on their self-belief.
It is not without hope, but if only they could win another key game in the knockout stages.
Where the game was won and lost...
Not adding to the scoreboard
Ulster produced an opening half that blew Glasgow away. They controlled possession and put the ball in all the right places while even conjuring a try intelligently crafted out of the top drawer for Chris Henry by working space down the left. It was just what the visitors required, except their dominance didn't have a sufficient impact on where it was really needed - namely, the scoreboard.
Niko Matawalu’s dive and all that
It was a crass display of over-acting on the Fijian's part in a game where he had largely been bottled up. His theatrics bought Glasgow their penalty even though Ricky Lutton made high contact with the winger. And so, what had been a knock-on advantage to Ulster turned into a penalty for the home side. Then, another penalty came and that began the try and conversion which stole the semi-final.
Failing to utilise the bench efficiently
You wondered why Stuart McCloskey was left kicking his heels until the game had to be chased. His powerful running and off-loading ability could have made quite a difference. Robbie Diack might also have brought some extra leg power rather earlier than the same time McCloskey was unleashed. Ulster might have also considered Bronson Ross as Ricky Lutton has had little game time.
Referee’s key decision at a crucial time
Ulster's pre-eminence in the opening 40 minutes saw them closing out the half with a series of attacking scrums in the right corner. A score at this point could well have finished the Warriors off as they were clearly struggling with Ulster's intensity. After several re-sets though, referee George Clancy appeared to penalise Ricky Lutton and the Warriors survived. A big moment and call.
Just not pressing home the advantage
Ulster's second half was a strange thing. Had the first 40 minutes left them spent, or did they perhaps reckon that they had done all the hard graft into the breeze? Whatever the reason, Ulster began to lose focus and accuracy. Touches were missed and passes dropped. Playing with that breeze behind them was maybe a factor, but they should never have invited Glasgow back into it.
Who could have foreseen that dramatic finish?
Ruan Pienaar's missed conversion of Chris Henry's excellent first-half try was a tricky kick into a nasty breeze. But Finn Russell showed how it was done with that incredible late conversion out on the right touchline, into the wind and on the wrong side for a right-footer. And what a try they scored as well. Fifteen phases with Matawalu featuring heavily and Russell's wonder pass finding DTH van der Merwe.