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Tyrone Howe: Ulster must stop paying the penalty

Reading takes time. It's hard to pick up the book that you've been meaning to read for ages, and even harder to stay awake once you flick through a couple of pages. A personal recommendation is key and there is a real feeling of satisfaction when you make it to the end of what turned out to be a truly great read.

And so it was with, "A Tale of Two Cities", written by Charles Dickens. It has one of the most memorable opening lines of all literature. " It was the best of times, it was the worst of times".

After an almost balmy Friday afternoon, watching the crowds pour into Ravenhill with the 2000 megaphones distributed before the game, it certainly felt like the best of times had returned to Ulster rugby with a real excitement of what was to come.

Unfortunately the electricity in the air was just a meteorological portent of what lay ahead as it didn't take long for the thunder and lightning to arrive and then the heavens opened.

The same happened in Dublin 24 hours later and, more than anything else, the weather set the landscape for the games in Dublin and Belfast, putting pay to creative play and instead thrusting all four provinces into their own respective dogfights.

In fact, the only ingenuity on display was from those Ulster supporters who managed to transform their megaphones into wet weather headgear by turning the funnels upside down and putting a hand over the top. It may have been lashing but I still saw a few smiles.

Kicking turned out to be the single most dominant factor in deciding both results.

While Contemponi, O'Gara and new boy Johnny Sexton gave a masterclass in how to kick in horrendous conditions, poor Andy Dunne suffered a dreadful night with the boot and every miss must have felt like another nail in the Connacht coffin.

Connacht lack game-breakers and out and out finishing power but they are incredibly game opponents and gave everything in the match.

Without their kicker turning that pressure into points they were always going to struggle to score enough points to secure their first win at Ravenhill since 1960.

Ulster created little of note themselves but when they got a sniff of the line, their superior ball carriers managed to finish off the job.

Friday night was all about getting the win and unless something goes seriously wrong Ulster have that vital victory that virtually secures the team Heineken Cup rugby next season.

It's a good thing, mind you, that this match was less about performance than winning, as there was precious little to keep the spectator interested, never mind to shout about.

There have been question marks over some of the refereeing decisions and the heavy Ulster penalty count, but to blame the ref would be the easy way out.

For many of the penalties conceded, Ulster have only themselves to blame through a distinct lack of composure and indiscipline.

Furthermore, this has been a consistent feature in Ulster's games for far too long. Hardly a game goes by without a yellow card or someone coming in from the wrong side or not rolling away or keeping hands on the ball.

A key part of the game, especially at the professional level, is to prepare for the referee before the game and manage him during it.

You can't use the excuse that you can't hear the referee - you have to be listening for him. This applies, more than anywhere else, to the breakdown and it would seem that either we are not listening or simply disregarding his advice. Ulster have to play smarter rugby.

As Ulster lurched to victory in Belfast, in "The Tale of Two Cities" , Leinster did what proves to be so difficult for so many other teams and for which they must take huge credit.

They out-Munstered Munster in an absorbing match that, despite the inclement conditions, you couldn't take your eyes off, such was the intensity of the exchanges.

It's hard to believe that most of these players train alongside each other in the green of Ireland, such was their level of aggression and physicality with each other.

While there was certainly no love lost, more than anything else it shows what inter-provincial rugby is all about

For too long, Leinster seem to have been perennial underachievers with a reputation for frightening talent in the backs but a soft underbelly upfront.

We used to think that if you could come close to them in skill, you could beat them on heart.

This culture is slowly changing through home-grown talent and shrewd acquisitions by coach Michael Cheika. Their front row has been strengthened by Stan Wright and that baby-faced hippo Ollie le Roux, while the signings of Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen back from Leicester have added a hard edge to that Dublin 4 flair.

Add to the mix a quality out and out no.7 in Keith Gleeson and you have the ingredients of a seriously competitive pack.

That should be the Magners title secured for Leinster, but their sights will be set on even greater achievements next season in the Heineken Cup - only then will the doubters finally be put to rest.

To rebuild Fortress Ravenhill, Ulster have to increase the intensity of their game, seriously reduce the penalty count and, above all, keep winning.

Now that Heineken qualification is virtually guaranteed, it would be great to see what we can produce now that the shackles are off.

The 2007/08 season for Ulster supporters has been like the meals issued to the boys in Oliver Twist. "3 meals of this gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays"

To quote that same well-known Dickens character, in the next couple of matches can we all say together, "Please Sir, I want some more".

Belfast Telegraph


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