Tyrone Howe: Been a while, but progress is richly deserved
Nervous anticipation was the prevailing emotion as the charter flight transporting the Ulster rugby team to Italy took off last Friday morning. In what sort of terms could you possibly put the importance of the game?
Well, an ardent supporter described it as “the biggest game on the planet!”
The other teams competing for quarter-final positions might have argued but I think, on this occasion, we can excuse the use of hyperbole.
Twelve years between lifting the European Cup in 1999 and qualifying again for the knockout stages felt like enough to test even the most patient.
On paper, the challenge wasn’t especially difficult.
While there were only seven points between the two sides in their first meeting this season, Ulster have made giant strides since then, while the Italians have been in steady decline.
The one exception, however, was their victory over Biarritz — the French scored four tries, then switched off, and paid the price.
Against this backdrop and with the prospect of qualification so tantalisingly close, the concern was whether Ulster might buckle under the weight of expectation. When asked what I thought the result might be, I said that Ulster should win by 30 points, but I couldn’t help but cross my fingers while sounding so bullishly confident. Effectively, Ulster’s biggest challenge lay within.
For this reason, huge credit should go to the players and coaches for passing the test with flying colours.
While the 43-6 scoreline suggests a walkover, the looks on players’ faces leaving the pitch at half time told a different story. Plenty of positive play with the ball being fired around looked good but it wasn’t terribly effective.
It took some shirt-pulling by Stephen Ferris, which kept his opposite man pinned to the side of the scrum, to allow Ruan Pienaar, Adam D’Arcy and Andrew Trimble the opportunity to exploit a three to two man overlap.
Too much speculative rugby was played deep in Ulster’s half and there was a lack of accuracy in keeping the ball — 50-50 passes went awry and at times possession was handed back too cheaply to the Italians.
With a half time score of 10-6, Aironi were right in the fight mostly due to Ulster’s own errors and that was the one thing we feared most.
Going into the game, I was convinced that it was a day for Ulster’s backs.
The forwards had stood up to the might of the Biarritz pack the previous week, and tries were needed, so surely this was the ultimate test for the Ulster threequarter line?
However, a back to basics approach right from the start of the second half blew Aironi away.
The pack took over and the driven maul from the line-out proved unstoppable.
One of the defining features about all the teams who have made the quarter-finals is that they have monster packs.
The South African influence has helped in this regard and these days against a weak oppo
sition scrum or line-out the difference is even more marked. But you need a squad, and my favourite moment of the afternoon was the penalty try that sealed the bonus point.
Aironi had plenty of grizzled experience in their front row with former Saracens, Mattias Aguero and Fabio Ongaro, while Ulster had gone into the match missing international duo BJ Botha and Rory Best.
The smiles were greatest on the faces of Declan Fitzpatrick and Nigel Brady who had replaced the international pair and never looked out of place.
Both did all that was asked of them.
While Fitzpatrick has been unfortunate to have had more than his fair share of injuries, Brady is one of the most durable and dependable players a coach could wish to have on his squad.
Last season Brady played a stellar role in Ulster’s thrashing of Munster down in Thomond Park, and the penalty try last Saturday will be another memory to cherish.
What is so pleasing is that Ulster are in the quarter-finals on merit.
While Biarritz’s defeat in Italy offered up renewed hope, ultimately it had negligible influence on Ulster’s qualification.
It was partly quality rugby, partly resolute defence and partly a kicker, in Ian Humphreys, who looked right in the zone.
The players and coaching staff deserve our congratulations and the adventure continues. Well done lads.