Pulling the plug on the South African home games for the foreseeable future raised the prospect once again of death by interpro. The Irish solution to a global problem? Dial up the provincial sides for home and away, and home and away. Followed by home and away. It’s as well they are capable of producing rugby that holds your attention, for at the drop of a hat this might be the default.
It was a bizarre day: Munster working their way from Johannesburg to Durban to Cape Town to fly home. Gameless. Having been preparing for their tour for weeks on end, and bringing a party of 48 between players and support staff, to see them through the games against the Bulls in Pretoria and the Lions in Johannesburg, through no one’s fault this turned into a whopping financial pain for a massive amount of time wasted.
They were in the air when Leinster and Ulster braced the biting cold of the RDS as if all was right with the rugby world. It’s unlikely the lads who were flying Ulster’s plane – John Cooney and Billy Burns – see it that way. Watching the two of them prepare for battle with Ireland’s brand leaders was to consider how quickly life can pass you by. And how, when coaches weigh up the odds, players’ careers take a turn for better or worse.
In Cooney’s case Farrell never really liked what he had to offer, to the extent he stuck with Conor Murray when the coach was the only one outside Patrickswell who thought the scrumhalf was worth a start.
In Burns’s case, he had Farrell’s arm around the shoulder and words of comfort in his ear when his Ireland career wasn’t working out. Until he didn’t. Funny thing, we watched London Irish, earlier in the day, win their London derby with Premiership champions Harlequins. Again Paddy Jackson was very good. We wondered, in the event of a Covid clobbering, or some other plague, laying waste to Ireland’s cluster of 10s, would Farrell consider dialling a number that starts with +44?
“Our position on that (ignoring Jackson) hasn’t changed,” an IRFU source said after the game. “It’s not being considered.”
In the first half Burns did his best to make a case, but the argument was persuasive about him being a decent outhalf, busy and energetic, but short of a killer line that would take him up a level. The best example came in the second quarter when his team were still giving Leinster all sorts, driven first by a defence where time and again they had 12 or 13 men in the defensive line and all of them looking to explode out of the blocks.
On this occasion they were in possession, on the front foot, when Burns made a clean break that took him into the Leinster 22, arcing towards the posts. The window for a pass to Cooney on his inside was open for maybe half a second. By the time he attempted the pass it was closing. Chance gone.
Still, Ulster went to the changing room with one question to answer: can we keep this level of aggression and energy going, knowing that Leinster – for whom Tadhg Furlong looked increasingly frustrated – are going to come back out looking to make improvements all over the place?
Already Cooney had missed two penalties but when he nailed the third one for a 10-0 lead you could feel their confidence grow. Enter Robbie Henshaw and it was game on again. By the time Cooney’s replacement came on it was 10-10, with 15 minutes left and we had arrived at that junction where every sign pointed to taking points and getting a nose ahead.
That replacement was Nathan Doak. Some may have thought it was a big call to swap the kid for the veteran at that point. It’s unlikely Andy Farrell was in that group. For Farrell it would have been a bigger call to leave Doak out of the November series, knowing as he does the lad who celebrates his 20th birthday in three weeks will be going to the World Cup.
He made touch with vital clearances, got his box kicks on the money, and nailed the penalty to put Ulster ahead in the final straight. When he stood over the tee for the conversion of man of the match James Hume’s try he knew that was the game, giving Ulster their first win at the venue since 2013. And well deserved.
Leinster versus Connacht on the same patch of grass on Friday night is not just the next point of interest, but a must-see meeting thanks to this result, and Connacht’s performance against Ospreys two nights ago.
A week after Ireland demolished Argentina, with all seven tries coming from forwards, Connacht did a job on Ospreys on a brutal night, with all seven tries coming from backs. If you’re still replaying the sequence for the score to set them on their way then you’re hardly alone. From the hard-edged strategy to commit the Welsh defence, to the shape and execution that followed – with Jack Carty inch-perfect – Mack Hansen had a handy run-in. It was very impressive. More of the same this week please.