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Ulster have stumbled on the big stage and this mental barrier may be too high

By Tony Ward

As a loyal Leeds United fan, even the '60s and '70s were tough. You see back then, for all the good days and big match wins, there were also many bad.

Despite some success, Leeds of the Don Revie era never fully lived up to their potential.

In terms of the silverware they garnered, you could say they underachieved. I guess Benfica of the modern football age must be feeling somewhat the same.

Switch codes and Ulster Rugby, save for 1999, could be categorised in a similar bracket.

For all the Ravenhill progress in recent years – on the field and off – that all-important silverware breakthrough continues to elude them.

What is beyond doubt is that Irish rugby now has – in Leinster, Munster and Ulster – three professional entities capable of going the whole way, whether it be Pro12 or in Europe. That said Ulster still have this massive monkey on their back.

The fact they were sold short by refereeing decisions in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup offers little consolation.

The disappointment of that defeat to Saracens cut deep and, while last week's fully deserved win for an under-strength side in Thomond Park will have boosted morale, I'm not sure it has any relevance to what faces the first-rank troops later on today.

There is no getting away from the fact that in recent seasons Leinster have proved the bogey team for Ulster in matches of consequence.

In the last three years alone Ulster have lost a Pro12 semi-final (2011), Heineken Cup final (2012) and Pro12 final (2013).

Last year's domestic finale was an absolute cracker, with Leinster deservedly adding the league title to the Amlin Challenge Cup won the week before.

When it comes to winning games of consequence, Leinster have the proven pedigree, whereas Ulster are still to overcome this massive psychological barrier.

I do not believe it has anything to do with venue and whether there are more blue-clad Leinster supporters than white-attired Ulster fans. The bottom line is that Leinster's hard winning edge was instilled by Michael Cheika, added to substantially by Jono Gibbes and polished significantly by Joe Schmidt.

And therein lies this fascinating challenge for Matt O'Connor too. Win today, and again in next week's final, and the transition, while nowhere near seamless, can be deemed a success. It is a sad fact of professional rugby life that silverware on the sideboard is everything.

Despite a begrudging undercurrent, O'Connor has made a fair fist of what was, to all intents and purposes, a thankless task when taking up the reins from Schmidt.

O'Connor has unquestionably reinvigorated the Cheika edge but still needs to fine-tune the precision attacking. That said semi-finals are about winning ... period. And with Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen potentially making their last appearance in blue, Leinster won't care how they win, as long as they progress.

For Ulster too it is a 'must win' game to take a step closer to that first piece of meaningful silverware since the Brian McLaughlin/Mark Anscombe coaching era came into being.

Not only will defeat deny Ulster the chance to add further silverware to their Celtic Cup win in 2003 and Magners League success in 2006, it will also bring the curtain down on the provincial careers of Johann Muller, Tom Court and Sean Doyle.

Last year Ulster (81 points) finished the regular season in pole position, ahead of Leinster by three – but this time around it has been Leinster setting the pace, finishing top of the pile on 82 points, 12 ahead of Ulster.

Logically, home advantage, allied to that 12-point gap, not to mention winning on the road in Belfast just three weeks ago, make Leinster red-hot favourites.

Can Ulster do it? Yes.

But, providing Leinster park last week's no-show against Edinburgh and concentrate on doing the simple things they do better than any other team on this island, then there should be but one outcome.

Ulster may be down but, as witnessed in Limerick with their shadow side, they are anything but out.

Belfast Telegraph


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