The rugby weekend review with Jonathan Bradley: Ulster's maul failures were the turning point, not Henderson's decisions
As a man of a mathematical slant, Iain Henderson knows the significance of figures. And after losing in Clermont, he'll have been well aware that the number three was set to loom large in the post-match narrative after his trio of decisions to kick for the corner rather than the posts.
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"Very few times will you come to a place like and it comes down to a point or two at the end of the game," said the lock after all three resulted in turnovers. "You need to try and back yourself to get points. We backed ourselves and fair play to Clermont they held us out.
"I suppose it's hard to know if it changed the whole game, but you cannot say going for the posts before half time would have changed the final result."
If a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it's highly unlikely it cares too much about a rugby match in an otherwise nondescript French town but the fact of the matter remains that there is no such thing as "turning down nine points." Kick the first penalty and the game moves forward on an entirely different trajectory, the subsequent penalties don't necessarily come in this alternate reality - see literally any movie featuring time-travel for evidence.
The debate, therefore, should centre on the theory regardless of the outcome. Morgan Parra was one to voice his surprise at the bold, yet ultimately fruitless tactic, but it's something that Ulster have been doing for a long while before Henderson's captaincy while John Cooney only sneaks into the PRO14's top ten for successful penalties despite leading the league in kicked points. They simply don't take the three points on offer with any regularity and, for the most part, the gambles have been paying off.
There is certainly a notion that the Stade Marcel Michelin is one of a handful of grounds, and away in France one of a handful of scenarios, that require a different approach - though for what it's worth, head coach Dan McFarland unequivocally backed Henderson - but, after a third week of lineout struggles, it's the failure to maul their way over with Parra in the bin that should be looked upon as the turning point, not the decision that preceded it.
-- There are few similarities between the Stade Marcel Michelin and La Defense Arena. For evidence see the post-match entertainment - in Clermont you immediately get the espoirs game coming onto the field, at Racing 92 you get a nightclub. One similarity they do hold, however, is that both are extremely difficult places to win. Ulster and Munster were dealt lessons in the need for an 80-minute performance to get an away victory at the home of one of the best five sides in Europe and it is no coincidence that the two pool losses of the Dan McFarland era have come at these two most inhospitable of venues.
Coming into the former Connacht man's first season at the helm in the summer of 2018, when it came to away rugby in Europe - ten losses in 13 games - the impression of his new side on their travels was that they couldn't beat heartburn with a packet of Rennies. Since though it's been a different story, winning on trips to Scarlets, Leicester, Bath and Harlequins.
After a surprising run to the European quarter-finals last year, another memorable away day last weekend would have edged the province to the verge of a home-quarter, a clear marker of continued progression in what to date has been an impressively swift rebuild.
Failure to do so, however, should not be viewed as a failure to progress. Not all losses are created equal and Ulster could - not should, but could - have secured a win in the Auvergne. In terms of results, this season may well yield nothing more than last season's away quarter-final defeat in Europe and a last four reverse in the Pro14 yet we can say the team is getting better simply because they look like they are on the field...even if Saturday offered another reminder of the enduring gap to Europe's 'Big Five'.
Quote of the Week: "That was a disgustingly dreadful performance. I apologise to everyone for that performance. It was a horrible game. I thought we were terrible. Anyone with any respect for the game would be horrified by that performance from both sides. I don’t need to say anything to the players, they’ve been apologising to each other. I don’t think we showed respect to the game or the opposition." It's fair to say Northampton's bonus-point win over Benetton on Sunday did not impress their coach Chris Boyd.
Number of the Week - 18: The frankly distressingly small number of years that Gloucester wing Louis Rees-Zammit has spent on this earth. Born three days shy of a full year AFTER Italy played their first ever Six Nations game, the youngster is being tipped for possible involvement in this year's championship for Wales. Whether he gets the call from Wayne Pivac or not, it's already been a memorable week for December's Premiership's Player of the Month, scoring a try and creating another against Montpellier on Saturday before getting a first senior contract from David Humphreys on Monday.
Player of the Week - Virimi Vakatawa: 15 carries for 107 metres, 11 defenders beaten, 3 clean breaks, and some out-of-this-world offloads, Fijian-born, French international Virimi Vakatawa had himself a day against Munster.
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