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Ulster steeled for the battles ahead

By Niall Crozier

Ulster's display of character in extending their winning run to eight matches in Friday night's 9-3 victory over Edinburgh at Murrayfield confirmed their hunger for success.

It wasn't pretty, but at this stage of the campaign what counts is getting over the line rather than how that is done.

Next up are Cardiff Blues away at the Arms Park on Saturday night (6.30pm), followed by the big one... Saracens at Ravenhill in the Heineken Cup quarter-final a week later.

And right now it's all about winning, for if Ulster end up with a trophy, or even two, their supporters will not care how that silverware was won.

In making that point I would refer you to two of this season's matches against Scottish opponents. On September 13 – the second match of the campaign now entering its closing stages – Ulster hosted Glasgow Warriors at Ravenhill.

Despite having played their guests off the park, they ended up losing 13-12, James Eddie having scored a last-ditch try to which Stuart Hogg added the match-pinching conversion.

It was robbery, because Mark Anscombe's side had served up some lovely football and should have had at least three tries. But having created a hat-trick of clear opportunities, each as a result of creative flair, they butchered each of them.

There are no points for 'nearly' or 'almost' situations, so at full-time Ulster had only 12 points from four Paddy Jackson penalties to show for their sometimes excellent but ultimately unsuccessful night's work.

But fast forward six months to Friday, March 21, a night when Ulster played little if any rugby deserving of the adjective 'beautiful'. Nevertheless they left a thoroughly miserable Scottish capital with four precious PRO12 points, and their first win over Edinburgh at Murrayfield since January 2012.

The penny has dropped for Ulster; getting the job done is not just a priority – it is everything.

With this being the final season at Ravenhill for captain Johann Muller, who is retiring from rugby and going back to South Africa to farm, and also Gloucester-bound John Afoa and Tom Court who will be joining London Irish once the curtain has come down on 2013-14, there is now an urgency about this team.

There is an edge, too – a realisation as to what's required, coupled with a new ruthlessness. As a result, Ulster are able to dispense with grace and replace it with grit in order to get the job done. That is the hallmark of any trophy-winning side.

Friday night was a dour slog in horrible conditions on a joke of a pitch. But as former Ireland coach Declan Kidney used to say in the face of adversity: "It is what it is."

Ulster coach Anscombe knows not to waste time fretting about things over which he has no control. Friday night's foul weather and horrendous pitch belong in that category. So he was pragmatic, highlighting his team's attainment of the pre-match goal – four more points.

"It really required a real disciplined effort from us and we didn't play a lot of rugby, but our discipline and our approach was real good, so I'm pleased at that," he said.

"It's a tough game to come here in these conditions and get a win and we'll certainly take that against a team on the improve.

"It was always going to come down to just small margins and we played that second half at the right end of the park.

"We didn't execute a couple of things, maybe missed a couple of opportunities, but our discipline and defence was real good. Not the purest game of rugby but I'll take it.

"We're definitely on target. We've been winning, we're on a good little roll and we've got to keep that going.

"Is it what we need to be doing to go to the Heineken Cup?

"No. But we're winning so we've got to keep positive about that.

"We've got a couple more boys to come back and hopefully everyone has come through alright out of this tonight – not too many injuries.

"We've got to be positive and look at the good things."

Those included another 40 minutes from Stephen Ferris to build on the 20 he got against Scarlets a week earlier while Dan Tuohy's last-quarter introduction for his first outing since he broke his arm playing for Ireland against Wales on February 8 was another.

Add Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best, Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble to the mix and you are looking at a formidable side for the battles to come.

Belfast Telegraph


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