Cooney, Coetzee and a creaking scrum - Jonathan Bradley's talking points from super Ulster's win over Clermont
Ulster have won two from two in Europe for a first time since the 2013/14 and Friday night's triumph over French giants Clermont has taken them top of pool 3. Arguably it could have been an even better night than the 18-13 score suggests with the hosts dominating for huge stretches of the game. Here rugby correspondent Jonathan Bradley looks at his key take-aways from the contest.
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1) Cooney and Coetzee quality shines through again
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland is often loathe to single out players after the final whistle, understandably praising the collective effort of a side who have developed a hitherto absent habit of grinding out wins in this competition. There is no keeping John Cooney and Marcell Coetzee out of the headlines though. The pair's level of consistency in the white jersey is unwavering and, just as against Bath a week ago, it would have been no surprise to see the man of the match award split between the two. Cooney's try-scoring break down the blindside was a moment of inspiration that proved to be the match-winner while their other score came from a line-out maul preceded by a penalty earned by a trademark Coetzee jackal. It's hard to imagine any player in Ireland has responded more positively to a World Cup omission than Cooney who has been superb in recent weeks, while Coetzee's injury-ravaged first two seasons at Kingspan seem a lifetime ago now with Stephen Ferris hailing him last night as the best number eight in Europe.
2) Murphy underlines his importance
Jordi Murphy has been impressive since his move from Leinster last summer, the openside providing Dan McFarland a true seven and heir apparent to Chris Henry who wore the jersey for so long. Often though, it can feel that his best work is witnessed when paying more attention to him than the ball. That's no criticism, and you only have to talk to team-mates to get a sense of his value, but there was no missing his contribution against Clermont. Nobody in the game provided more tackles or line-out wins, while he led the forwards for metres made too. He scored one try, could have had another if John Cooney had found him off the shoulder in the first-half, and finished the game with a remarkable run of three turnovers forced in quick succession thanks to a rip, a ball dislodged in the tackle, and and a stolen line-out. Right up there among his very best performances for Ulster and with Sean Reidy ably assisting, as well as a good late cameo from Nick Timoney, it was quite the night for Ulster back-rowers.
3) Moore of the same
There were a string of solid performances from Ulster's less heralded if no less important names too. Louis Ludik provides a huge amount of defensive solidity even on a night when few would have relished aerial battles, while Alan O'Connor stole a key line-out and built upon his good showing from the bench in Bath last week. Fresh off a two-year contract extension signed during the week, Marty Moore was another key cog in the machine with the tight-head prop continuing to prove an astute piece of business. Upon arrival from Wasps last summer he was challenged by Dan McFarland to manage one match involvement per minute and his speedy arrival to the ruck remains an often ignored aspect of his defensive game. Having come close in recent weeks, he finally got his reward at the breakdown too with an impressive poach and was fractions of a second away from another later in the second-half. In what's been a problem position for Ulster, the success he's made of his stint as starting tight-head to date is a key element of a pack transformed the past two seasons.
4) Loss of discipline almost saw Ulster pay the penalty
In last season's Champions Cup, Ulster's run to the quarter-final saw them average seven penalties conceded per game. They nearly doubled that tally in the second-half alone last night. Indeed, their final count of 15 is a remarkable number for a winning side. The most apparent issue came at scrum-time. Things began badly and got worse with the charge sheet at the end of the game reading seven penalties, one of which resulted in a penalty try, and a free-kick surrendered. Two were on their own feed, as many as they'd given up all season prior to Friday night. Missing Jack McGrath, as well as the bulk of Sam Carter on the tight-head side of the second-row, Eric O'Sullivan is neither the first nor the last loosehead to come away from a battle with Rabah Slimani wondering what happened and whether it was legal but matters worsened once the replacements were introduced. The Clermont pack earns on average around one penalty per every four scrums, and forced Harlequins into a tactical change at hooker after just 16 minutes last week, so they're no slouches at the set-piece but after a good few weeks for Ulster the frequent use of reverse gear was certainly a backwards step.
5) Could a good night have been great?
If you'd shown Clermont's coaching staff footage of the game with the scoring plays omitted, you sense they'd have been pleased to find out they'd be taking anything back to the Auvergne, their single match-point very much a bonus in this instance. A particularly poor performance, it felt scarcely credible that the French side were chasing a win in the final minute. The nerves of Ulster coaches and fans alike could have spared considerably had a few more chances been taken by Ulster during their spells of dominance. It's been a theme of recent weeks but three of the host's visits to the opposition '22' were ended by spilled ball, another when Luke Marshall was tackled into touch, while two penalties knocked to the corner stayed in play. After near misses in recent years, few teams know the value of a point more than Ulster and it will be January before we find out whether the failure to secure a four-point swing proves costly this time around.
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