Five talking points from Ulster's thrilling victory over Edinburgh
Jonathan Bradley takes an in-depth look at Friday evening's Kingspan Stadium success
If you thought Ulster's first win of the season was thrilling, their second will have blown your mind.
Dan McFarland's men had left it late to sneak past Scarlets on the opening weekend and on Friday night, John Cooney struck in even more dramatic style to see off Edinburgh and cap a momentous comeback.
Having had time to consider the game, Jonathan Bradley has five talking points:
1. John Cooney's impressive kicking record continues
For Ulster fans, the news two years ago that Ruan Pienaar would be forced to leave the province was incomprehensible, like being told there are people out their that prefer Walkers to Tayto. Both the term ‘succession policy’ and name David Nucifora became cause for scorn throughout the nine counties as the South African embarked on an emotional nine-month farewell tour.
Hindsight is a fine thing. While Pienaar’s place in the pantheon of Ulster greats is assured – they’ll never make a better NIQ signing – the almost universally unpopular decision has worked out better than anyone could have imagined. There remains a concern about the message it sends to prospective imports – mercenaries welcome, your loyalty won’t be rewarded anyway – but John Cooney has been a revelation.
Since Ulster last lost at the end of March, he has kicked 27/32 off the tee (84%), including nailing the nerveless late penalty to secure a win for the second game running. This week’s contract extension means he’ll be an Ulsterman long after Pienaar has hung up the boots while the benefits for Ireland of the Dubliner playing regular rugby are clear, even more so should Conor Murray’s current injury keep him out action in November. And despite the late heroics, Ulster attack coach Dwayne Peel believes there’s more to come.
2. A moment of appreciation for Alan O'Connor
Ulster’s restart work has hardly been stellar over the past number of seasons, indeed the performance in the so-called ‘third set-piece’ has become something of a running joke among supporters over the years. A moment of appreciation, then, for Alan O’Connor.
Cooney’s pressure kick from all of 40 metres grabbed both the match-points and the headlines but the narrative could have been so different. Ironically it was Cooney that gave away a penalty in 79th minute that seemed sure to give Edinburgh another last gasp win in Belfast – Richard Cockerill’s men were the last side to win here back in February – and it would have been another sucker-punch had his fellow Dubliner O’Connor not rose to claim the restart and give Ulster back the ball just as the clock went red.
The province’s captain last week fell to the bench on Friday night but still managed to come up with a match-saving intervention.
3. Will Addison earn a World Cup spot?
While Craig Gilroy’s fine solo score saw him win the man of the match honours, it was another impressive showing from Ulster’s new full-back Will Addison.
The former Sale man scored one try, created another and looked dangerous throughout, especially so in the second-half. He led the side in carries, contributed 96 metres and seems a very intelligent player, one almost in the mould of his current defence coach Jared Payne.
Having spent the summer in Australia, Addison was called into train with Ireland while they toured Down Under, and found himself in camp again last month for Joe Schmidt to take an even closer look. A year out from the World Cup, it’s hard to envisage too many bolters making it into the Grand Slam champions’ travelling party but Addison could certainly be in the mix.
4. An interesting Billy Burns statistic reveals the game-plan
Having not managed a try in the season’s first 133 minutes, Ulster scored three in 15 to completely change the tide of the contest. Trailing by 17-points early in the second-half – the same tally they overturned against Munster on New Year’s Day – Dan McFarland’s men were sticking faithfully to their gameplan despite the limited early rewards.
Rather than try to test Edinburgh in behind and turn their aggresive defence around – out-half Billy Burns’ first kick from hand came as late as the 71st minute – the province instead stayed patient and sought only to execute better. While a tiring Edinburgh no doubt contributed, as did their loss of number 8 Bill Mata, the big difference in the second-half seemed simply to be better work in the ruck to support the carrier and adding just that little bit more depth in their line to help negate the visitor’s linespeed.
5. Two from two but bigger tests lie in wait
With a points difference of only +3, Ulster have two wins on the board. In a seven-team conference, and one where at most five teams figure to be competitive, there is little point in downplaying the significance of a pair of victories over two of the three teams that finished above them in last season’s standings. Strong starts though, have not been a problem.
This is the third season in succession they have won their opening two games but the goal must be maintaining that winning habit into Europe and the visit of in flux Leicester Tigers on October 13. Travelling to South Africa on Wendesday, and taking on the Kings on Sunday, it would be a shock of titanic proportions if they’re not three from three come the final whistle in Port Elizabeth.
Then, though, will come further tests of their momentum. Cheetahs, despite appearing weaker this year and exposing ten players to their first PRO14 action against Munster in round one, will still figure to be tough proposition in the altitude of Bloemfontein.
Ulster haven’t won in Munster since 2012, while Connacht haven’t won in Belfast since JFK was in office. Two derbies slated upon the return from South Africa will be full-blooded contests before the Champions Cup commences.
Belfast Telegraph Digital