Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Ulster Rugby must find way to clinch the big wins

Feeling down: It’s been another season of so near yet so far for Ulster and the likes of Roger Wilson following the PRO12 defeat to Leinster

I don't know if you're a glass half-full or half-empty person. Maybe it depends on the size of the glass and what's in it.

Ulster's season? Depends how you view it. Did they win anything? No. Might they have won something? Yes. Should they have? Um – that one's less black and white.

Their PRO12 form was less impressive than the previous season. In 2012-13, Ulster won 17, drew one and lost four of their 22 regular season matches to finish top of the table.

They scored 577 points and conceded 348, a differential of 229. They then saw off Scarlets in their play-off semi-final before losing 24-18 to Leinster in the final.

This term Ulster won 15 out of 22, losing the balance to finish fourth. They scored 470 points and conceded 319, a differential of 151. On Saturday night they fell to Leinster in the semi-final, losing 13-9.

One does not need to be a mathematical genius to arrive at the conclusion that the record was a lot better in the first of those two seasons.

Okay, so let's examine the past two Heineken Cup campaigns. In 2012-13, Ulster topped Pool Four by virtue of having won five of their six matches.

Those five victories included a magnificent display in the 25-6 rout of Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens, albeit that this was offset when the same opponents inflicted a 10-9 defeat the following week in Belfast.

Significantly, Ulster beat Castres Olympique in France – their first ever victory in a competitive match on French soil. The fact that Castres then went on to win the Top 14 underlines just how magnificent an achievement it was to have beaten them at their Stade Pierre Antoine citadel.

Through to the quarter-finals for the third year in a row, Ulster bowed out after losing 27-16 to Saracens at Twickenham.

And this year – Mark Anscombe's second as head coach – Ulster did even better in the group matches, creating history by registering a perfect six out of six.

This included inflicting Montpellier's first Heineken Cup defeat at Stade Yves du Manoir where Toulon, Leinster, Glasgow, Cardiff, Bath and Sale had all tried and failed to win in the previous two seasons.

In addition, Ulster beat Leicester Tigers away, the first time any visiting side had been victorious in a European game staged at Welford Road since October 2006 when Munster lowered the Midlanders' green, red and white colours.

Through to the knock-out stages for a fourth successive season, Ulster had a home quarter-final for the first time since 1998-99, the season they won the Heineken Cup.

But in front of a capacity crowd at the all-new Ravenhill it all went pear-shaped when Jared Payne was ordered off in the opening minutes following a purely unintentional collision with Saracens full-back Alex Goode. The 14 men battled heroically before going down 17-15.

The bottom line is that having reached the knock-out stages in each of the past four seasons, Ulster have progressed just once – 2012 when they went all the way to the final only then to be trounced 42-14 by Leinster at Twickenham.

And it's Leinster who provide the yardstick against which Ulster must measure themselves. In the past six seasons they have won the Heineken Cup three times – 2009, 2011 and 2012 – followed by the Amlin Cup in 2013, the year in which they also won the PRO12 for the first time after defeats in each of the previous three seasons' finals.

In those six seasons, Leinster have played a total of 24 knock-out games in the two competitions. Of those they have won 19 – a whisker shy of an 80 per cent success rate.

Ulster were not involved in any knock-out games in 2009 or 2010. But since then they have played 10 – six in the Heineken Cup, plus four in the PRO12. Of those 10, they have won three – exactly 30 per cent.

Against that, they have produced an exciting crop of gifted young players – the likes of Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy and Stuart Olding, all of whom have been capped.

And to that quintet can be added the promising Ricky Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Rory Scholes and Michael Heaney.

But then you go back to that Leinster yardstick for a reminder of the fact that they, too, have excellent fledglings. And they are learning how to WIN. They lifted the British & Irish Cup last year and will make it two in a row if, as expected, they beat Pontypridd in Friday night's final at Donnybrook.

And with their seniors facing Glasgow on May 31 at the RDS – where it's 14 months since the hosts last lost a PRO12 game – another double is on.

Like I said, that's the measure for Ulster.

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