Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Why Ulster must learn the lessons from Twickenham

The game was up. Over. Done and dusted. Dejected Ulster fans looked on as the outstanding Leinster side launched another blistering raid in the dying minutes. Then out of nowhere a familiar chant began to echo all around Twickenham.

“Stand up for the Ulstermen, stand up for the Ulstermen” thousands roared in one final act of defiance and support for Brian McLaughlin's team in appreciation of their magnificent efforts in getting this far, even if the final chapter to an extraordinary story did not have the happy ending we had all hoped for.

On the day Leinster were simply too good and Ulster weren't good enough.

The thumping 42-14 scoreline — a record defeat in a Heineken Cup decider — will of course hurt the men from Ravenhill.

So too the fact that they didn't help themselves with elementary errors committed all over the pitch: in the set-pieces, in the loose, in attack and defence.

But sometimes in sport, while recognising your own deficiencies and trying to come up with ways to rectify them in the future, you must also acknowledge your opponents.

Saturday in south west London was one of those days.

Leinster are an awesome outfit. They are doing what Barcelona should be doing in football.

Barca couldn't retain their European Cup this season. Leinster did.

They have now won the biggest prize in their sport three times in four years. That's dominance for you and their magical captain Brian O'Driscoll insists that they are determined to win a few more.

If he says it, I believe him. What a man. What a player. O'Driscoll had surgery on his knee less than two weeks ago yet rose from the operating table to deliver the most inspiring performance.

After being absent through injury for most of the season, some doubted that at 33 he would return with the same swagger, style and strength. He looked better than ever on Saturday with his incisive breaks, breathtaking ability to see a pass when the rest of us think it impossible and of course his brave as a lion tackling.

The complete rugby player was central to a complete performance from Joe Schmidt's classy side, who are taking the club game in Europe to a whole new level.

From one to 15 they are special with full-back Rob Kearney, out half Jonny Sexton and the rampaging number seven Sean O'Brien up there with O'Driscoll in orchestrating the play and the outcome of the game on Saturday night.

Ulster hooker Rory Best, honest as ever in his post-match assessment, said the men from the north were given a lesson.

He was right. As long as you learn lessons, though, you can move on and improve.

As Leinster celebrated, that's what McLaughlin, in his last game as coach, told the players in one final huddle.

Ulster are hugely ambitious. They want to be as good as and better than Leinster.

Ravenhill Director of Rugby David Humphreys, the captain when Ulster ruled the continent in 1999, will tell you that's why Kiwi coach Mark Anscombe is flying in from New Zealand to take over from McLaughlin.

Anscombe will find that he has many extremely useful tools to work with from established Ireland internationals Best, Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace to a foreign legion including Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller to younger gifted guns like Chris Henry, Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy.

Returning former Ulster heroes Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson will add much to the squad, while another world class signing is expected.

Anscombe though will arrive under pressure due to the popularity of McLaughlin, who is leaving his position as coach to take charge of the Academy, knowing that next season he must go one better than the last guy.

Following Saturday's crushing loss McLaughlin declared that Ulster must now make finals the norm rather than the exception.

You could clearly see the pain on the faces of his players, many of whom still appeared shell shocked long after the final whistle, but while the defeat was hard on them it was also tough on the many supporters who had travelled far and wide at great expense to be at Twickenham.

At least prior to kick-off the loyal Ulster fans — more than 20,000 of them — lapped up the occasion and helped create a wonderful atmosphere.

Finals now aren't just finals. They are events with dancing girls, a PA announcer roaring his lungs out, that big music build up and last but not least the gladiatorial entrance.

The frenetic start promised a rip roaring encounter, but in the end the game turned into a one sided procession.

There were plenty in the press box who blamed number 10 Paddy Jackson for all Ulster's ills, but the 20-year-old and youngest player on the pitch didn't lose the game on his own.

Sure, he made some wrong calls when in threatening attacking areas and a few mistakes with his kicks, but other far higher profile Ulster players didn't perform either.

After the match Paddy stood with his team-mates gazing around Twickenham thinking what might have been. He will want to be back on stages like this as a winner.

If he and everyone else at Ravenhill can learn from Saturday, Ulster will be.

Here's to the Heineken Cup final in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium next year.

Belfast Telegraph


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