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Pressure on for Ulster to keep pace with elite


Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin

Ulster were sent a message loud and clear as to the standards to which they must become accustomed in the Heineken Cup.

The quality, total commitment and unrelenting pace and physicality of the Leinster-Stade Toulouse Heineken semi-final at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, won 32-23 by Leinster, must have emphasised to Ulster the requirements of this competition.

Most Ulstermen have congratulated themselves on a largely successful Heineken campaign this season.

They reached the quarter-finals before losing to Northampton, who met Perpignan yesterday in the other semi-final.

But Leinster on Saturday revealed the gap in standards which exists between themselves and certainly Ulster. Maybe between them and any other side in this year’s tournament for they will start the final in Cardiff on May 21 as firm favourites.

Even a team as good as Toulouse, current leaders of the French Top 14, were swept aside by the pace, power, intent and non-stop work rate of Leinster.

French coach Guy Noves admitted: “Leinster were very strong in their rucking, that was one of the areas where we fell short.

“We were incapable of imposing ourselves; that was where we lost.

“But you have to say Leinster played very well.

“They knew how to capitalise on our mistakes and they deserved their win.”

For the coach of a club as good as Stade Toulouse, four times Heineken champions and reigning champions, to concede that they had come up considerably short of their opponents in a semi-final, spoke volumes for Leinster’s excellence.

Joe Schmidt’s side had quality and class in every department. The efforts of the whole pack were tremendous, the half-backs were sharp and on their game and there was pace and invention among the threequarters.

In short, Leinster had true class all over the field and they needed it to subdue the French challenge.Brian O’Driscoll said: “It was pretty intense, very close to being a Test match.

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“There were a lot of Test players out there and that is the intensity that calibre of player brings.”

It certainly is. And it sets standards that the likes of Ulster are going to have to match in future seasons if they want to repeat their 1999 Heineken Cup triumph.

The big financial commitment at Ravenhill which has seen several top class South Africans arrive and has now secured the services of Auckland’s Jared Payne for next season, will demand a return.

And that means success in the No. 1 European competition, the Heineken Cup.

But even with all those players, that is not going to be easy.

The Leinster youth academy is fast producing some highly talented players for the future and if they are of the quality of players like Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton then Leinster’s prowess is going to remain high for years to come.

Those are the lofty levels to which Brian McLaughlin’s men must aspire next season and it is not going to be easy.

Even Stade Toulouse coach Noves admitted his players had been taught a valuable lesson for the future by their defeat.

For the fact is, Leinster most definitely raised the bar in Saturday’s terrific semi-final. Will Ulster be able to match those soaring levels?

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