Mangers League: Ugly Ulster's Aironi victory points to a winning habit
Aironi 15 Ulster 22: A relatively new term has emerged in sport in recent times — winning ugly, which in itself is ugly in that it drives a horse and cart through the rudiments of grammar.
It translates as success ground out as a result of clinical efficiency rather than anything achieved via beautiful creativity.
Ulster won ugly (ugh) on Saturday night, emerging from Stadio Luigi Zaffanella having beaten Aironi 22-15.
As a result, the Magners League table shows them to have played two matches, both of which they have won.
And as per the yardstick by which professional sport is measured — namely winning — Ulster tick the boxes that matter.
They will play better than they did on Saturday night and lose. They have done so many times in the past.
But if there really was a time when the whole ‘beautiful losers’ thing was a reality — and increasingly the cynic in me suspects that may have been a fanciful notion put about by people associated with those who lacked what it takes to win — that has gone.
Today’s environment is one in which coaches are judged solely on results and players are paid to achieve those.
Winning is the name of the game and so long as you do that, within the rules, everything else is secondary.
Ulster did not create this environment or these conditions. But they are required to acquiesce, for which reason they can be well satisfied that they are making significant progress. Events in Italy on Saturday underlined the point.
Faced with opponents determined to mark the occasion of their first ever home match in the Magners League by winning it, Ulster showed that they could handle the pressure.
As had been the case against Ospreys they were able to withstand a late onslaught at the hands of opponents intent on denying them victory at the death.
Two such performances, back-to-back, suggest they are learning how to hold on to what for which they have worked in the previous 75 minutes.
Ulster never quite managed to pull away from Aironi, which meant there was always the threat they might be reeled in.
When Ulster went 6-3 up, Aironi got back to 6-6. When they led 9-6, again the Italians were able to draw level.
Ulster went in leading 9-6 at half-time and then found themselves 12-9 in arrears within 14 minutes of the resumption.
Their response was an equalising penalty promptly followed by an opportunistic try which they converted to go 19-12 up.
For the first time there was a seven-point gap between the protagonists.
But back came the Italians with another Ludovic Mercier penalty to put themselves in a position where a try would have given them a one-point lead.
They were up for it, as were their supporters.
So the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of Niall O’Connor as he teed up his ninth shot of the night at the posts was enormous.
As with four previous penalties — and the conversion of Robbie Diack’s grab-and-smash try — he was on target, leaving Aironi a converted try shy of parity.
The final five minutes appeared to last forever, with the tension reaching its peak right at the death when a lengthy examination of the Italians’ claim for a try by former Munster No 8, Nick Williams was undertaken. Finally, after much analysis, TV Match Official Giulio Romano ruled in Ulster’s favour — no score.
At that stage the visitors were dug in and clinging on to their 22-15 lead.
They were down to 14 men too, with streetwise Pedrie Wannenburg — knowing that Aironi needed seven points, not three — having been yellow-carded for conceding two penalties in quick succession.
In those dying moments, when the Italians poured everything and everybody into attack, Ulster’s defence was magnificent. There was discipline, structure and courage, with players quite literally putting their bodies on the line throughout.
As well as those nail-biting final minutes they had shown resolve and adaptability in the face of adversity in early stages, too, with Declan Fitzpatrick’s injured-enforced exit (calf) after six minutes necessitating Tom Court’s switch from loosehead to tight and Bryan Young breaching that particular gap.
Lock Tim Barker had another great night; he was Ulster’s most productive line-out player in a setpiece which still is not quite working at optimum level.
Wannenburg, Chris Henry and Diack worked relentlessly in the at times ferocious loose at numbers six, seven and eight respectively.
The latter’s intercept try ruthlessly punished home fly-half Mercier’s uncharacteristically slack pass and marred an otherwise very good display by the Frenchman.
And for the second successive weekend Mercier’s opposite number, O’Connor, weighed in with 17 points.
The second of his five successful penalties from eight attempts was a stunning kick from touch, mid-way between half-way and the Aironi’s 10-metre line.
‘Steady work, good progress but could do better’ might be teacher McLaughlin’s report card entry at this stage.