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Ulster Rugby coach Mark Anscombe will ring changes


When Ulster's players and fans traversed down the M1 towards the RDS, hoping to vanquish the memory of last season's disappointing finish to the campaign at the site of the RaboDirect PRO12 final, they would have been hugely disappointed to think that come the final stages of the game they would be chasing merely a losing bonus point.

That was indeed what transpired however, and that Ulster were thankful to be in such a position was indicative of how poorly they had played in this much-hyped festive inter-provincial derby.

Leinster had the upper hand in every facet of the game and it was only their profligacy inside the Ulster '22' that prevented them from being long out of sight by the time Ulster mounted their late resistance.

In the end, Mark Anscombe's men were not even afforded the scant consolation of a solitary point for their efforts after Jared Payne was correctly adjudged by the TMO to have knocked on in the process of grounding Paddy Jackson's grubber kick late on.

That passage of play was Ulster's performance in a microcosm.

While Payne almost saw that the error went unnoticed, it was a poor decision from Jackson to kick when he had men over on his left.

Ulster's young out-half was far from alone in that regard, however, as minutes prior Craig Gilroy had an overlapping Payne steaming outside him on the flank only for the threat to dissipate when the Irish international instead took the ball into contact and the chance was lost.

Had either of those opportunities led to tries, and Jackson added the subsequent conversion, in truth the resulting bonus point would have been an ill-deserved reward for an insipid performance that failed to match Leinster from first whistle to last.

Ulster had appeared to name a slightly stronger side on paper after Leinster were forced to rest Ireland's most capped centre pairing, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, as well as Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, following the recent international camp while another British and Irish Lion was absent in the shape of the injured Cian Healy.

Despite suffering from a rash of injuries themselves, Ulster's fit Ireland players were all able to take part, with Ricky Andrew the only member of the starting backline not to have been capped at international level.

However, Matt O'Connor's (pictured) men needed victory after surprisingly suffering back to back defeats at the hands of Northampton and Edinburgh over the last fortnight and their thirst for redemption was clearly evident from kick-off.

Jackson had given Ulster the lead with an early penalty but that was matched by his Leinster counterpart Jimmy Gopperth soon after.

Two errant attempts off the tee from the usually reliable Gopperth kept the score level but Ulster continued to struggle.

Almost unbelievably, they led as the interval approached following another Jackson penalty but by this stage there was little relationship between the scoreboard and the relative performances produced by both sides.

When Leinster did finally make the breakthrough that had for so long seemed inevitable, it came against a 14-man Ulster contingent after flanker Sean Doyle had been shown a yellow card for failing to roll away.

Moments later, man of the match Jordi Murphy was crossing the whitewash after some electric play from the ever dangerous Luke Fitzgerald who gave Ulster loads of problems.

While much was made of Anscombe naming a starting 15 solely comprised of players who are Irish qualified, it was the introduction of two foreign imports who finally improved Ulster's performance.

Ruan Pienaar and Jared Payne were sprung from the bench with half an hour to play and the southern hemisphere pair immediately breathed life into the flagging display.

One Payne break had Ulster on the front foot but a handling error saw Luke Marshall lose the ball forward and thus halted the promising advance.

That mistake loomed large when two more Gopperth kicks in the space of five minutes moved the hosts into a 13 point advantage that Ulster never looked capable of clawing back.

Mark Anscombe did not emerge from the Ulster dressing room for some time after the final whistle and the plain-speaking head coach will have no doubt had much to say about a second sub par performance in a row following last week's unconvincing arm-wrestle over Zebre.

The no-nonsense Kiwi's first training session this week will be unpleasant for all involved while privately the loss will have increased his impatience to see the likes of Tommy Bowe, Nick Williams, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry back in harness soon.

Ulster began the season with consecutive poor displays, losing to both Newport Gwent Dragons and Glasgow before reeling off six straight victories.

With league-leaders Munster next up on Friday, and a Heineken Cup double against Montpellier and Leicester on the horizon, the men from Ravenhill will require a similar response as they enter what is an inescapably crucial stage of the season.

Belfast Telegraph


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