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Brian McLaughlin's tactical nous is key for Ulster

By Peter Bills

To the casual observer, modern-day professional rugby union can seem a strange game.

Players are paid small fortunes, many of them international stars from the southern hemisphere, to lend their valuable expertise and knowledge to a northern hemisphere franchise.

Not unreasonably, they are asked to offer leadership and guidance, not to say direction. And yet, in extremis, none of these qualities seem to emerge.

Instead, it is the coach who sits on the sidelines and identifies problems and solutions apparently beyond the comprehension of those involved on the field. It is he who plays the critical role. Curious, indeed.

Ulster's hopes of a bonus point from a four-try victory over Aironi in central Italy on Saturday seemed as flat as the landscape at half-time.

The Ulstermen led just 10-6, one try to nil, and had shown few signs of the mastery one would have expected of a side containing eight internationals, many of them from the southern hemisphere.

Yet a simple interlude within the confines of the dressing-room transformed Ulster.

Where hitherto they had endlessly recycled ball and done predictable things with it, shovelling it on into the next player's arms and thereby playing into the hands of the Italians' defence, suddenly Plan B was invoked.

Ulster went back to basics, sucked in the Aironi forwards and asked serious questions of them. Those of us who had been mentally screaming for such an approach long before the end of the first half simply nodded in acknowledgement of a successful strategy.

Aironi had no answer and Ulster scored three tries within 14 minutes of the restart to turn the game on its head.

You honestly wonder why so many senior, highly experienced figures in the Ulster side couldn't work this out themselves.

Instead, it was, presumably, coach Brian McLaughlin who fashioned a whole new playing strategy for the second half, with dramatic success.

Even Ulster lock Johann Muller, captain for the day and a man who has played for the South African national team, conceded frankly: "In the first half, we went at it the wrong way. We played too much rugby and tried to throw it around too much. That played into their hands."

Of course it did. Aironi were perfectly happy with a loose, fragmented game in which mistakes were plentiful by both sides because it disrupted the flow.

The moment Ulster started to keep it tight, began to take it to them and drive on relentlessly up front, Aironi couldn't cope.

For sure, coach McLaughlin and his colleagues emerged from a chilly winter's day with their own standing enhanced. But I'm not sure you could say that of all Ulster's senior players.

And this matters. Now that Ulster have reached their first Heineken Cup quarter-final since 1999 -- the year they won the competition -- making sound, visionary decisions on the hoof, on the evidence in front of the players, is going to become of crucial importance when they face Northampton in the last eight.

None of the other sides in the quarter-finals will need their coach's words at half-time to switch their playing focus if one option is not working.

Players must take charge on the field, not wait for their coach to plot a new strategy at the break. For, by then, it could be just too late.

Once Ulster realised Aironi's fallibility up front, the game was over. Pedrie Wannenburg scored two tries from rolling mauls, another came from a penalty try and others from Chris Henry and Simon Danielli. Andrew Trimble had scored the only try of a disjointed, fractured and error-ridden first half.

To the visitors' relief, what had seemed at half-time to be a tricky test, turned out to be a stroll in the Italian winter sunshine.

However, not, it would seem, thanks to the Ulster players.

Aironi -- J Laharrague (R Boccino 52); P Canavosio, R Penney, G Pavan (G Pizarro 50), M Pratichetti; J Marshall, M Wilson (T Tebaldi 15); M Aguero (S Perugini 60), F Onagaro (R Santamaria 72), F Staibano (A De Marchi 72), M Bortolami, Q Geldenhuys (Capt, C del Fava 60), V Liebenberg (A Birchall 47), J Sole, J Erasmus.

Ulster -- A D'Arcy; A Trimble (D McIlwaine 66), N Spence, P Wallace (I Whitten 72), S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar (P Marshall 68); T Court, N Brady (A Kyriacou 70), D Fitzpatrick (B Young 60), J Muller, D Tuohy (T Barker 70), S Ferris, P Wannenberg, W Faloon.

Ref -- C Berdos (France).

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