Hawkeye Sidekick

European Rugby Champions Cup: Oyannax 23 – 24 Ulster

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The final play of the game at the quaint surroundings of Oyannax spoke volumes. Ulster had wheeled the host scrum and with it ended the contest despite the match official initially insisting that Ulster needed to front up one more time in a scrum set piece. The TMO had different ideas and instructed the referee to blew full-time. A palpable sense of relief erupted from the Ulster camp as Oyannax scratched their heads to figure out how they blew a twenty-three point lead at the interval.

The proverbial game of two halves at Oyannax was in full view. The hosts pounced on a quite disjointed Ulster first half performance. Les Kiss’ decision to rest key players such as Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson and Nick Williams was horribly backfiring. The half-back partnership of Paul Marshall and Ian Humphries struggling to provide the game management and street smarts to get Ulster on the front foot. The pack were struggling to compete against a feisty host front five who dominated lineout and scrum early doors.

Oyannax to their credit were full value for their twenty-three point lead. They defended with organization and when Ulster coughed ball took full advantage evident in Tawalo’s lung bursting effort from his own half just before half-time. Fantastic try for the hosts but Ulster were their own worse enemy. The hosts thought they had the job done at half-time, think again.

Ulster were a team transformed in the second half. The introduction of Pienaar and Jackson at half-back brought the stability, flair and creativity to launch Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey in the three quarters. Their implosive skill and pace allowed Rory Scholes to revel in that second half and the winger started the comeback with a try which some of the Munster back line on duty yesterday would drool over. Impressive running line to receive a Pienaar pass to break the game line but the pace and tenacity to evade several Oyannax players for the try gave Ulster renewed hope.

This is a contest which we will potentially reflect on the emergence of Paddy Jackson to deliver at the highest level. When Ulster needed their number ten to deliver, Jackson delivered in spades. His game management and penalty kicking were on the money throughout. He was also helped by a rejuvenated Ulster pack who now were executing effectively in set piece (stealing lineout and gaining parity in scrum set piece).

Oyannax were now suddenly on the back foot after the sensational Scholes try opener and when Gilroy scored in the corner which Jackson nailed the resultant conversion, it was game on after sixty-one minutes. Ulster fans in attendance could sense that victory was now attainable, their voices getting louder as the hosts started to get restless, a comfortable lead now reduced to crumbs of comfort.

McCall who has being an absolute revelation for Ulster in the front row this season then crashed over after splendid work from Best and Luke Marshall. McCall’s athleticism for a front row is staggering and it must be a question of when the youngster gets the nod for national team selection. Jackson again unerring on the conversion to leave only two points in the contest.

The ultimate game winning penalty could define Paddy Jackson and provide Joe Schmidt with the evidence that the player can now deal with the pressures of international rugby at out-half. Last weekend, Jackson spurned two late penalty misses to hand victory over Munster. This weekend, Jackson nailed the penalty kick from inside his own half to send Ulster fans in the stands into raptures.

There was still a potential sting in the tale as Oyannax again pounced on a lapse in Ulster concentration to win the ball from the restart. The ball was now dangerously in Ulster’s twenty-two and one collapse or slip from the Ulster front row would mean curtain in European Cup ambitions. Ulster had an opportunity to clear their lines but Oyannax disrupted to win a scrum to setup the last phrase of play. Credit Ulster, their pack rose to the challenge and forced Oyannax to concede possession. A breathtaking game of rugby and Ulster are now in pole position to secure a best runner up spot.

The appointment of Les Kiss as Ulster head coach is paying dividends already early doors into his tenure. His no nonsense approach is refreshing and holds his player to account where previous management perhaps did not. Kiss’ praise for Rory Best at half-time surely will be heard by Joe Schmidt as Ireland look to identify a captain to fill the void of Paul O’Connell. Rory Best is a natural leader, well respected in the Ireland camp and deserves his chance of captaincy.

Ulster realize that massive improvement is required to compete with Saracens in London. Their first half performance was deplorable but unlike Munster were able to call on superior squad options to rescue the day. The first half performance exposed weak areas particularly in the half-back positions. If Pienaar or Jackson go down with injured, it could be curtains for Ulster.

The good news is that Ulster’s back line has the potency and potential to upset any team on their day. The three quarter partnership of Marshall and McCloskey continues to blossom and when you have speed merchants such as Gilroy and Scholes, good things usually follow with tries.

Ulster chief concern is now to find the consistency in performance for a full eighty minutes. If they do that, then Les Kiss’ charges will be a match of anyone. A great end for Irish rugby after a miserable performance from Munster yesterday evening. Joe Schmidt, are you watching. Ulster players are on form and need to play in the 6N tournament.