Bad break for Ulster with Tuohy sidelined
Kiss now pondering options up front as yet another key player goes down
It was all eerily reminiscent of last week, what with the win being somewhat overshadowed by yet another big name injury. This time, of course, the felled player in question was at least in the northern hemisphere when injury struck with Dan Tuohy breaking his arm in the second half of Friday night's victory at Cardiff Blues.
Yes, but the impact of Tuohy's now 12-week absence will be much more immediately felt as it leaves Ulster now looking rather threadbare when it comes to frontline second rows what with Iain Henderson going under the knife this week for his hip operation.
It is also a huge personal blow to the 29-year-old who has been in notably try-scoring form this season – he bagged his third in three games on Friday – and the recurrence of his fractured forearm, following on from last February's initial break and surgery when playing for Ireland in the Six Nations, means he will not only miss what seems likely to be Ulster's first four European pool games but will also, of course, be sitting out any involvement in the November internationals as well.
Tuohy will now undergo more surgery to his forearm which had a plate inserted into it after the first break. And, of course, in the season just gone, Tuohy also broke his hand and struggled to get his starting place back after joining the injured list again after last April's European quarter-final defeat to Saracens.
More immediately for Ulster, though, interim coach Les Kiss and the homegrown coaching team around him, have quite a problem now that Lewis Stevenson and Neil McComb are the only currently fit locks with much experience at this level to pack down alongside Franco van der Merwe though Robbie Diack could also play second row though this would leave the back row options a bit unbalanced looking.
So, Tuohy joins a notable list of absentees with Henderson, Ruan Pienaar, Jared Payne – who may be back this week – and props Declan Fitzpatrick and Ricky Lutton all on the sidelines.
And all this as they head to Zebre for Saturday's second PRO12 meeting with the Italians with what is believed to be a significantly changed side anyway.
Back to Friday, though, and even though this wasn't an aesthetically pleasing performance, there was much to admire as Ulster clenched their teeth to dig this one out to register their second successive win to sit well alongside their opening draw the last time they visited Wales to face the Scarlets.
Overall, the Blues clash was all about the work-rate of defensive structures and lung-busting efforts from the pack's driving maul and set-piece scrum. Ulster's front five did sterling work at most of the scrums while they delivered in spades at the lineouts where their driving mauls drove a stake into the hearts of Cardiff's hopes on their artificial surface.
"All credit to all the boys, to come here and not let a team like Cardiff score is a great fillip for us," said assistant coach Jonny Bell.
"To be honest this game was won by our forwards. Our lineout and scrum were excellent. Our driving maul asked a lot of questions of Cardiff and (forwards coach) Allen Clarke has been working steadily with these guys.
"They've really knuckled down and we're trying to make our scrum a real force to be reckoned with."
Sure there were some bad errors and poor decisions made by the visitors, but when the heat came on it was Ulster's collective will and physicality which overshadowed their opposition, though next month's challenge will significantly steepen, and tell us much more, with the home game against Glasgow in the PRO12 and then two weeks of European action with Leicester away and champions Toulon at home.
Perhaps emblematic of the way it all evolved on Friday was a passage of play two minutes before the end of the first half when Ulster managed to put some width on the ball.
Tommy Bowe, who with Paddy Jackson had decent enough first games of the season with the out-half contributing 14 valuable points from the tee during his hour on the park, received the ball out on the left and attempted to chip in behind Rhys Patchell.
The Blues full-back blocked the ball with his hand – it looked like a knock-on, perhaps even a deliberate one – and the visitors were awarded a lineout.
Not for the first time in the game, or indeed the last, the ball was collected by Franco van der Merwe and Ulster set themselves and then began to maul their way into the Blues 22.
The inevitable penalty ensued and Jackson nailed his fourth effort – he only missed one long range kick in his hour on the park – to give his side a 12-9 lead at their backs as they hit the dressing room for the half-time chat. In a game of small margins, it was still significant.
Indeed their fearsome driving maul and largely excellent scrum, with Wiehahn Herbst rapidly forging himself a reputation as a formidably solid scrummager on the tight-head side, were two facets of play where the Blues – even with Wales and Lions legends Adam Jones and Matthew Rees making up two thirds of their starting front row – found themselves struggling and mention also has to be made of Andy Warwick and replacement Callum Black's efforts as well along with that of man of the match Rory Best.
Indeed, the game's decisive score came shortly after Ulster had launched two notable mauls from lineouts and off the back of some multi-phase play Paul Marshall spotted an unguarded area in the tiring Blues defence to launch the rampaging Tuohy towards the sticks.
Jackson's conversion of Tuohy's 51st minute effort put Ulster 10 in front at 19-9 and when, shortly afterwards, a hit by Stuart Olding ensured that Patchell's seemingly scoring pass to Richard Smith went behind the Blues winger, you sensed that the home side's inner belief was beginning to maybe ebb.
Tuohy then departed in clear pain after an attempted tackle and though the Blues came again in wave after wave just before the game entered its final 10 minutes, again Ulster's defence held firm with Ian Humphreys's late intercept try essentially being gifted to him by a worn out home side now bottled up in their own 22.