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Ulster Rugby: That extra spark still missing in heat of battle


Crucial: Leinster’s Ian Madigan is hailed after the game’s only try

Crucial: Leinster’s Ian Madigan is hailed after the game’s only try

©INPHO/James Crombie

Crucial: Leinster’s Ian Madigan is hailed after the game’s only try

It doesn't get any better even two days on, does it? Even though absorbing another defeat from Leinster, in yet another season-defining knockout game, didn't exactly feel unusual this one is clearly the hardest of all to take.

After all, this wasn't about Ulster chasing lost causes from early on. No sir. This was Ulster in command, this was Ulster looking strong enough to make the final, this was Ulster in position to wreck Brian O'Driscoll's hopes of bowing out in a game with a trophy up for grabs.

It seemed that they were on the very cusp of making up for all the hurt inflicted on them by Leinster over recent years and yet, somehow, their hopes were obliterated in and around the last 20 minutes, which saw Ulster fail to even score a point while their opponents replied with 13.

Afterwards, Johann Muller put on his bravest face but this was no way to begin his retirement plans and the pain of this one – to go alongside all the other knockout reverses with last month's Saracens result still a raw wound – is sure to hurt for some time to come as he begins a new life away from the game.

The Ulster skipper left the action just before the hour and then could do nothing but watch as the white shirts slowly but surely began to lose their grip.

It couldn't have felt much better for Ulster's other frontline departures, with Tom Court still serving his ban and John Afoa injured, but they will play again in England while, for Muller, there was nothing but that empty-feeling laced with the finality of it all for him.

To lead the game, to be so dominant for the first half and that early part of the second makes what unfolded, well, scarcely believable. Yes, we're getting closer and closer to actually beating them but that's just clutching at straws though.

The fact is that Ulster let it all slip from their grasp. Pure and simple. Were they just unlucky? Well, losing Paddy Jackson certainly didn't help, nor indeed seeing Muller and Chris Henry also taken off early.

Ruan Pienaar's charge-down could have bounced better and Jared Payne looked to have a legitimate gripe at the way he was grappled with on the ground at the end.

But in the white heat of battle it takes something extra to seal big games and, frankly, Ulster just still don't have that, particularly when it comes to Leinster.

They needed leadership, belief and more support for the barn-storming Iain Henderson but, instead, there were no defence-splitting breaks, too many players short of match fitness and running on empty along with a debilitating failure to score more points and halt Leinster from accumulating them.

One moment of miscommunication is all it took and when it arrived, Ian Madigan struck and Jimmy Gopperth converted. Muller looked on and prepared for the worst, beaten again, except this time there is no comeback for him as he walks away.

Belfast Telegraph