The Good Old Days
Once upon a time, there was a time in Irish rugby when the inter-provincial series was the be all and end all. The local rivalry, the local blagging rights, the banter at the matches with familiar faces from your arch rivals resonated.
In recent years, the IRFU player welfare program has diminished the value of the Irish inter-provincial series particularly around the festive period. The decision is conservative and sound but the fact supporters are paying good money over Christmas to watch games where one side is at full strength and one is not is massively disappointing. Leinster’s lineup against Munster on St.Stephen’s Day perfectly illustrating this situation.
Last night at a sold-out Kingspan, Ulster eased their way to victory and moved into the top four in the league against a Connacht side whose injury list looks more like a field report in a military battle. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the game which rather sums up Ulster’s season to date.
The hosts lineup were pretty much at full strength; back line was imposing with the likes of Marshall and McCloskey in the three quarters and with Ludik and Piatau on the wings. The half-back partnership was also formidable with Jackson and Pienaar called upon; the pack was abrasive with wily seasoned professionals in Wilson. Henry, Van der Merwe and Best included. Rodney Ah You got the nod at prop which saw him against his former Connacht colleagues.
It would have being interesting to see the scenes in Galway when the team bus arrived to take the team to Belfast; the injury list to be quite honest is horrific and was compounded with the news that talisman Bundee Aki will be out until February due to ankle surgery. The lack of options in the center positions was quite evident in Pat Lam having to putDan Poolman at twelve, a position which is not a position associated with the player.
The pack was even more stretched; prop issues meant that recently resigned Tom McCartney was covering those positions despite playing all his rugby with the province to date at hooker. The Connacht bench had the likes of Ultan Dillane but Pat Lam and management team realized getting on the team bus that the prospect of beating Ulster in Belfast for the first time in the professional era was as remote as looking for a calm day anywhere in Ireland yesterday.
Ulster held all the aces
No-one could fault Connacht’s application and work rate during this contest but the hosts held all the aces throughout. Connacht battled hard in the opening period playing against a strong breeze, territorial gains were hard to come by but Connacht were pressing hard and forcing Ulster to make unforced handling errors. Ulster’s half-backs asserted their influence midway through the half and suddenly gaps started to emerge in the Connacht fringe defense.
The first try of the contest was the move of the game from the hosts. It showcased Ulster’s quite evident skill set with ball in hand, a sweeping move from midfield led to several well executed passes. Piatau is a superb ball carrier and his game line yards forced Connacht to over commit one too many players at the ruck which allowed McCloskey the easiest of tasks to score from close range. Matt Healy was forlorn as he was faced with a 3 on 1 defensive scenario.
Paddy Jackson duly converted the conversion to add to his earlier penalty which came from persistent pack advances resulting in Connacht infringing (offside). Jackson on the night was on the money all game; made easier by the fact the Ulster pack were dominant which gave the ten the time and space to launch his three quarters. Jackson’s kicking from the tee has notably improved; improved technique and execution.
Pienaar at nine for his fifty-seven minute cameo gave an exhibition in scrum-half play, always sniping and looking for opportunities to create game line breaks either with quick passing from the ruck, strategic box kicking and making decoy runs. Marmion led a forlorn effort in contrast but with no viable first ball receivers at three quarters, Ulster were easily reading Connacht’s plays throughout.
The first half saw injuries twenty-two and twenty-three to the Connacht squad with Bealham adding more prop injury woe and Poolman was forced off midway through the half. The academy players will be called upon but the injury crisis looks like a massive negative heading into European Rugby action next month.
Pat Lam and management may potentially call the IRFU for a loan player particularly in the prop position in the weeks to come. The clash with Munster looks incredibly difficult for Connacht even though Munster will probably rest a couple of first team regulars for the fixture.
Upon the restart, Connacht were forced on the backfoot having to defend their try line. The pressure inevitably tolled as back row Ross crashed over from close range; this should have being the cue for Ulster to secure a bonus point try performance but it never materialized.
Ulster were incredibly loose and lethargic on the Connacht restarts and their defensive line was easily breached immediately after the Ross try as Connacht half-backs Marmion and Carty linked up for the number ten to score a try for the visitors from quick ruck ball.
Ulster’s intensity and work rate died in the last quarter and try scoring chances were then at a premium. Piatau and McCloskey had nice line breaks but the final pass or decision making was not good and chances were spurned. It captured Ulster’s season this term; no full eighty minute performance, too many unforced errors and lapses in concentration to undo superb passages of play with ball in hand, a game where Ulster had their opponents on the rope but did not inflict the knockout punch.
Connacht’s gallantly tackled and competed throughout but their squad selection options were no match for Ulster. A key eight day turnaround beckons now for Pat Lam and team, injured and bruised bodies will need to be replenished but the serious injury list is now a major setback for the side in Pro 12 and could ruin a superb European campaign.
IRFU need to step in and give Connacht assistance with key player loans to offset the massive injury list. This period will be critical to see how the IRFU view their provinces and allow fringe province players to move temporarily for game time minutes. Interesting few weeks beckon.