Johann Muller: I've got no doubt that in the next five or six years there will be plenty of trophies in Ulster Rugby
Published 19/05/2014 | 08:16
Ulster captain Johann Muller's post-match words put things into context – they have taken some huge strides but they have yet to crack the code when it comes to stepping up on the big-match occasions. The killer instinct is not quite there.
"We just need to find that extra step because that's the difference between ending second and ending first," he said.
"Obviously a side like Leinster, who have won plenty of trophies in the last five-six years, know what it takes to get to that extra step.
"This Ulster team's time will come, without a doubt. The facilities are there, the players are there, the set-up as well, the Academy are coming through. I've got no doubt that in the next five or six years there will be plenty of trophies in Ulster Rugby."
That's in the future. But where did it go wrong in 2013-14?
Once more, Ulster have had injuries. They are not alone in that, however, so let's not get paranoid about anything on that count; professional rugby is a high-speed physical contact code and casualties are inevitable.
But where Ulster have suffered is in the timing of those injuries and the importance of the players affected.
That Heineken Cup game with Saracens was a case in point, with Rory Best exiting with an ankle injury after 10 minutes, by which stage it was already obvious that Ruan Pienaar was struggling as a result of the shoulder injury he picked up three weeks earlier.
Tight-head is the cornerstone of the scrum; John Afoa played in only nine of Ulster's 23 PRO12 games this season. He last lined out on April 5, since when he has been sidelined.
The unavailability of key players – Rory Best, for example, played only nine games for Ulster this season, while Tommy Bowe made just 13 appearances – was a handicap.
But so, too, was the fact that some of the big-name players did not step up when it mattered this season. That is a sin of omission.
Leadership is not the responsibility of one or two; it is something to which everyone contributes so that the burden is shared. Ulster would benefit if some of those who appear to believe this is somebody else's role were to come forward and provide an example to follow in the heat of battle.
All the great sides have an abundance of leaders throughout their ranks. In view of the number of Ulster players with 100+ caps, they should have no shortage.
Had Saturday night's set-to at the RDS been scored as a boxing match rather than rugby, Ulster would have won it. In terms of possession and territory, they out-jabbed Leinster, particularly in the first half.
Yet for all of that, they were limited to just six points from a brace of Paddy Jackson penalties, with the second of the pair having been the last kick of the opening 40 minutes. At this point in their evolution, Ulster are not sufficiently clinical.
The All Blacks are the best team in the world. They make their visits into opposition territory count almost every time.
Ulster do not have that.
They can recycle ad infinitum it seems, but the end product isn't always there. Jabs are one thing – knock-out punches are something altogether different. Points win matches.
This has been an Achilles heel this season – and I'm not talking about red or yellow cards so much as the concession of penalties at moments when, having worked hard to create the opportunity for a finish, a moment of sheer carelessness undoes all of that graft.
It is mentally exhausting for those who have put in the effort to find themselves forced to retreat as a result of a team-mate not releasing, going in off his feet or entering from the side.
That is a facet of their play Ulster really must eradicate if they are to metamorphose from a nearly-there side into an over-the-line outfit.
And they must become more street-wise when it comes to their working relationship with referees. If they are warned punishment is imminent, they must heed the warning rather than re-offend.
Right now, Ulster appear to be stuck. They are close – very, very close – to winning trophies, but there is still a psychological barrier to be overcome.
It has been a bane of many a fine side and doubtless will continue to be so as long as sport is played.
Examine the history of any code and almost certainly you will find that before they became winners, most teams had experienced the pain of failure, frustration and disappointment.
On Saturday night, Leinster showed Ulster how to win. Mentally, they had the edge, experience having taught them not to doubt but just to stay focused, keep working and remain disciplined in the conviction that their reward would come.
We saw exactly the same belief in the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium on November 24, 2013.
Ulster have certainly had more than their fair share of bad luck in the campaign just ended, not least in its most crucial stages.
Once again Ulster topped the PRO12 Fair Play League, confirming the fact that they are not a dirty side.
The red cards awarded against Jared Payne in the Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Saracens and Tom Court in the PRO12 round 21 derby date with Leinster were down to interpretation by the referees – Jerome Garces and Luke Pearce, respectively – who might well have taken the view that there was neither intent nor malice in either incident.
In both cases, those were 50-50 calls and each time they went against Ulster. Payne's dismissal played a massive part in 14-man Ulster's European exit and the two-match suspension Court received ruled him out of the PRO12 title bid.