Belfast Telegraph

Comment: This Ulster team is only getting started despite agonising defeat to Leinster in European Champions Cup

Sean Reidy at full-time after Ulster's Champions Cup defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin (Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Sean Reidy at full-time after Ulster's Champions Cup defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin (Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

At the full-time whistle, every single Ulster player sunk to either their haunches or onto their knees on the Aviva Stadium turf having expended every last bit of energy.

It still wasn't enough. Despite a lung-busting 80-minute performance, still they weren't able to get over the line against Leinster, the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of European rugby, in their Champions Cup quarter-final.

That may be the hardest thing to take. You can micro-analyze Jacob Stockdale's decision not to dive over the line and instead try to place the ball down one-handed to the nth degree, but it matters not. The cold, hard facts and the news reports in the morning will reflect that Ulster poured their heart and soul into that game but still came up three points short.

And so, they head back up the M1 on what will undoubtedly be a muted bus journey home. I've done it before myself and it is not a fun environment to be in, the players - some more so than others - left to reflect on the inevitable 'ifs', 'buts' and 'what could have beens'.

Not only that, but there's the inevitable and heartbreaking dissection of that gut-wrenching defeat to look forward on Monday morning. It won't be as hard as some of the others they've experienced already this season (the game against the same opposition at the RDS Arena springs to mind), while at the same time it may be the hardest they've ever done.

Because despite the fact that they lost the game, Ulster can and will hold their heads up high.

Look at the facts: they took the defending European champions right to the wire, a side that are still considered the best in Europe right now, they were one penalty or drop-goal from forcing extra time, and they were one completed touchdown away from a date with destiny against either Racing 92 or Toulouse in the semi-finals.

Bear in mind that this is an Ulster team that, at the start of the campaign had you said they would be in the quarter-finals of Europe's premier rugby competition then you would have laughed yourself silly, such were the dire straits they were in after last season.

They were without a head coach, had barely scraped into the Champions Cup by beating the Ospreys in a one-off play-off and were a team very obviously on the decline when it came to performances on the pitch. They were likened to a sinking ship, and talking to players it suggested that it may as well have been.

Ten months later, they come away with the endorsement of some of Irish rugby's top names after one of the best games of rugby you'll watch all season. Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble all lauded the game and the performance from the visitors, and rightly so.

As we expected them to do, Ulster gave it absolutely everything they had.

They played with an intensity and physicality we haven't seen since perhaps, ironically, that quarter-final down in Thomond Park in 2012. Their work-rate was off the charts from numbers 1 to 23 and they never took a backwards step.

That's why it was no surprise to see every player collapse at the end. If there was a man still standing then it would have defied what was a complete buy-in and full passion from every single man with a red hand on his chest. It was 100% for 80 and no less.

Dan McFarland was asked if his side deserved to win the game during his post-match press conference and he dismissed that as being irrelevant, but the train of thought still remains: did his brave warriors deserve to win?

On one hand, how much they gave in the 80 minutes deserved more than the agony of seeing the scoreline read 21-18 in favour of the hosts when it was all said and done. On the other, it proves that they still have a long way to go to match up with the best in Europe.

So, I'll cop out. Yes and no is probably the answer there.

What it does prove, however, is that Ulster at least have the building blocks in place to put together a squad that will someday be at the same level as where they need to be, where they will be able to put in the same effort and come away with the right result.

That starts with their young core pushing through into the seniors ranks who, once again, were to the fore for Ulster, as it has been so many times this season already, and that's another wonderful reminder that this team can only get better as their young players grow and improve and as more come through to increase the squad depth.

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Kieran Treadwell scores the opening try of the game for Ulster (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Eric O'Sullivan proved for the umpteenth time this season that he is a cornerstone loosehead that Ulster can build around. Kieran Treadwell had a monstrous game in the second row. Nick Timoney is a workhorse in the back row. Rob Baloucoune and Michael Lowry are lethal with ball in hand in that back three, and the latter has the capabilities to mature into a game-changing fly-half.

All five of those players are 23 or younger.

Add in the burgeoning talents of hooker Adam McBurney, tighthead prop Tom O'Toole, flanker Greg Jones, centre James Hume and winger Robert Lyttle and there is so much for this Ulster squad to be optimistic about going forward.

Factor in a head coach in Dan McFarland who is quickly proving that he's all that he was hyped up to be when he was poached from the SRU and for the first time in a while we can see something that Ulster have been missing for so many years.

Direction.

There's a goal. An ambition. A pathway. Academy players aren't thrown into the team and then left to wander in the cold for the next few weeks: they're given extended exposure. The set-piece has been solidified and then improved upon. The attack looks like it has a cutting edge.

So, sure, tonight didn't go their way. It wasn't expected to. I myself repeatedly said to those who asked me how I felt the game would go that I could see Ulster making it close but I couldn't see any way that they could win - and I couldn't be more delighted to be proven wrong by a lay it all on the line outing from a side playing with desire and drive.

For 80 minutes, Ulster let us dream. That's more than enough to suggest that this team is being taken in the right direction.

There are those, of course, who will say this is a snap judgement after one big performance, but I say to you it isn't. Take into account the big wins this season - Scarlets (twice), Racing 92, Leicester - and the hard-fought wins that they didn't deserve - Scarlets and Edinburgh to start the season - and there is something building.

There's an energy around Kingspan Stadium that was missing during the ill-fated Mark Anscombe and Les Kiss eras. There's belief again that this is a team that has better days on the horizon, whether they be coming very soon or in the not so distant future. But at the very least there is a unified collective working in the right way.

So now the hard work starts. It's not enough to come within three points of Leinster and decide that's enough, this needs to be the catalyst to becoming something more. Something that will make the most of this performance that has made Europe sit up and take notice.

Ulster have three games left in the Guinness PRO14 in which to secure their place in the play-offs, a return to European rugby next season and potentially set up a revenge clash with Leinster which could again be at the Aviva Stadium.

That's the short-term goal. The long-term will be down to McFarland and his coaching staff, but you strongly suspect that it will involve winning games like this and not just simply taking the adulation for pushing a team close.

But the bottom line is this can't just be it. Ulster fans can enjoy this as much as they want, but it will have been for naught if this is where it comes to an end, there has to now be a fire lit inside each of the players to drive themselves onward to reach this level again and then better it. And then better it again. And again.

You couldn't fit all of the things we discovered about Ulster tonight into one of our usual 'Five things we learned...' pieces, that would do a disservice to the performance that Ulster delivered. Instead, I feel that it can be summed up into one phrase that should be echoing around Irish - and indeed perhaps European - rugby like a warning cry.

Ulster are here. And this team is only getting started.

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