Ulster's big players must lead the way
Published 28/03/2013 | 08:00
I can remember standing at Stevenson Park in Dungannon colours in an AIL game. It was half time and we were getting a right shellacking from captain Willie Anderson.
It had been an indifferent opening 40 minutes. I had played alright but there was no doubt that I had slightly gone through the motions. Willie was firing from both barrels and all of a sudden his attention turned to me, "TBone, you are an Ireland player, start playing like an Ireland player'.
In one short sentence, he nailed the issue – those of us who should have been leading from the front had been sitting back in our comfort zones and looking to others.
It needed to be said and Willie got it absolutely right – he also got a reaction in the second half.
If the Ulster players are to get themselves out of their current rut, the All Blacks, Springboks, but particularly the Ireland players, have to start playing like the asterisk that is beside their names in the programme.
It seems puerile but that asterisk means a lot. To pick up the programme, read the selection and see your name with that little symbol beside it actually means the world, but with it comes responsibility.
All of a sudden, the pressure increases, you are no longer a provincial player, you are an international player – whether or not it is true, it feels like there is more to lose.
Last weekend's loss to Edinburgh certainly ramps up the pressure – now knocked off the top of the Rabodirect perch, we are suddenly looking over our shoulders.
With Saracens at Twickenham in 10 days time, it feels like the sands of time are running out in terms of getting performance going.
Part of me wanted to reserve judgement to see how Saracens got on last Sunday against Harlequins. It was concerning. The returning England players all added value and there is a confidence running through the team which does not allow Mark Anscombe's men many chinks of light.
Yet, the other part of me is telling myself that it does not really matter. Ulster must simply concentrate on Ulster and what it wants to do best.
It is far more proactive to focus on the latter, but this weekend's fixture against Leinster is now of vital importance.
It is not time to hit the panic button, but it is imperative that the combinations start to click again and that the team starts to play some proper rugby.
If we look at the positives, this weekend the team has the potential to start looking on paper more like itself.
Two key features of the early season success were Jared Payne and Nick Williams.
The return of the former is a tremendous fillip, while Ulster needs the ball-carrying ability and physical presence of the Kiwi.
One cannot help but heave a huge sigh of relief to see Johann Muller (left) back on the pitch – his leadership and cool head in the midst of battle make him a central figure.
It is enormously encouraging that Iain Henderson's injury does not appear to be as bad as first thought. He might still be a cub, but his value to Ulster becomes increasingly evident when he is not on the teamsheet.
But it is the Irish 'asterisk men' who need to front up and start firing – whether it is the old hands like Rory Best and Tom Court, the forgotten men like Andrew Trimble, Dan Tuohy and Darren Cave, or the new hands like Paddy Jackson and both Marshalls.
It is easy coaching a side when things are going well and victories are being chalked up all over the place.
But it will be interesting to see how Anscombe reacts to the current circumstances.
I think you never really see the true side of a coach unless you see them under pressure.
For Ulster to regain their confidence on the pitch it also has to re-emerge off it as well. In this, the coach has a key role to play.
To tick the technical side of the coaching box is one thing, to have that capacity to say the right things at the right time to the right people is a rare gift.
We will not only see what the senior players have to offer in the next few weeks but also the coach.
They are all in it together.