As a preamble to last Fridays game against Edinburgh I decided to watch the last 45 minutes of the Ulster – Stade match again. Two months on and emotionally detached from the days and hours following the game, I viewed dispassionately.
My conclusions on Ulster and the match in general were much as they had been in the immediate aftermath of victory. Stade were very poor, both in their mental attitude and how they actually executed their game plan.
They are captained by Roncero, an Argentine international prop and a trained doctor I understand. Now were he my GP I would be a little concerned as to which emotional state I would find when I entered his surgery. He might sing you an aria one day and be all cupped shoulders, shrugs and palm gestures the next.
He might say, ‘so you are half dead my friend, vot doo you vant me to doo? OK, OK! vlet me give you a hug, now you can go, there is nothing I can doo!’
Roncero was in one of his emotional states against Ulster. He is exemplary of the club as they really do not want to play against teams like Ulster, who take them out of their comfort zone both mentally and physically. Having to dog-it is a pain on the backside for them in a manner of speaking, thus you get the kind of performance in their game that we saw at Ravenhill with Roncero losing it and a few others following suit in a vicious manner.
By contrast Ulster played outstandingly well, being in their own comfort zone in front of the baying home fans, they were obviously lifted, though that is not to denigrate the quality of their game.
Clearly Ulster have a problem, not being able to score from close in as was illustrated on Friday night, again. They are scoring from broken play and from outside their opponents 22. Worryingly also, as was demonstrated against Stade and again last Friday night they lose concentration after 60 minutes, sometimes with disastrous results. Against Edinburgh earlier in the round, the heads went down and their game went into its shell when iHumph missed a penalty. Fortunately Stade were so far up their own backsides they couldn’t take advantage on this occasion but not pushing on and scoring more points/tries has come back to haunt us as we enter the last weekend of the Heineken groups.
Other features of the Stade game were the punditry of Scott Hastings as supporting commentator. I’ve read some criticism of him and perhaps he isn’t fashionable to the younger generation yet I find his comments to be on the money. He is at heart an ex rugby player who still loves the game and his admiration for the skills of the game is undiluted whilst his dismay at the Dupuy gouging was unqualified and unequivocal.
My dismay at Stade‘s attitude and that of its owner mad Max to the whole gouging episode is also undiluted. Having noted that Dupuy and Attoub were in trouble over eye gouging, Stade and its owner announced sanctions against the players involved whilst apologies streamed forth like confetti at a wedding. When it became clear that this would not clear up the matter and that Dupuy and Attoub faced long bans the whole tenor of Stades attitude changed.
When businessmen become involved in sport for commercial reasons, they become like Guazzini, morally bankrupt in their attitude to that sport, if their commercial interests are threatened. Stade have been poor ambassadors to rugby with the prevarication towards eye gouging. They threaten the sport’s ability to govern the behaviour of its players by challenging the ban on Dupuy and now Attoub. Hopefully the justifiable outrage that commentators, players and fans alike felt over the eye gouging of Stephen Ferris will be maintained in the face of Stade’s duplicity.
Ulster can respond to this duplicity by completing the one thing that will hurt Stade most. That is, going out and winning in Bath whilst Stade falter against Edinburgh and we earn a quarter final spot in the Heineken Cup. An unlikely scenario but still tangible.
On Friday night Ulster put themselves in a position where they are in with a chance of either that quarter final spot or a quarter final slot in the Amlin Cup. Either would reward their commitment and endeavours on the rugby pitch. To get there they had to face down the season’s nemesis Edinburgh, playing in horrendous conditions. The howling wind and rain were remote from the Terrace grandees whom now have faint memories of previous seasons rain and wind contorted spectating.
Having purchased a pint pre match, I opted to stand outside the beer tent with Gillian and Ron the Spark. Dewi Barnes the e-steamed editor in chief of the FRU appeared out of the night, so to speak, to hold an impromptu editorial meeting with me in a force 6 gale. It was interrupted by the appearance of a fan, someone prepared to admit they read the FRU! This man should have been curated, so rare a species is he.
I somehow suffered the indignity of representing the garrulous Ulster supporter with the surprise appearance of SKY TV cameras. Firmly in the lens of the cameraman I uttered a strangled, ‘c’mon Ulsterrrr!’ whilst holding the plastic beer glass up to hide my visage. The camera lingered as I smiled self consciously towards my aghast ‘friends’.
With Dewi disappearing in the direction of the Prom/Scoop/toilet, (delete as appropriate), Mid Ulster Maestro appeared out of the dark. MUM is promoting himself as a windbreak these days and positioned himself twixt beer tent and my position on the rails next to the car park. Despite MUM’s hulking presence my beer resembled a Hawaiian surfing beach as a small breaker appeared across the surface of the lager courtesy of a gale blowing off the beer tent roof.
Having made our way to the Terrace we stopped off amongst the second barrier, as Gillian had decided she might have a bit of craic amongst them. Chairman Kimble, permanent president of the supporters club appeared from the east bearing 2 glasses of Ireland’s finest tightly grasped in his mits whilst cap’n Grumpy used me as a conveyor belt to transfer some of Ireland’s finest black stuff from the west to a near neighbour.
The things you have to do standing amidst the 2BC and as if that wasn’t bad enough, Kimble enquired had I made a transfer to the second barrier position. I was minding Gillian I informed him, dispelling any notion I might be integrating into the ‘oik’ society.
Kimble these days is one minute sounding like babel fish and the next gushing homilies of homespun freshly laundered thoughts with a side salad of ‘pearls of wisdom’ garnished with forelock tugging. He was gasping for the oxygen of publicity as he sought my company and enjoined me to presage an honourable mention in this blog. His wish is granted as I could not resist the all enveloping charm of the man.
I found myself twixt a concrete wall and a hard place amongst the second barrier crew who I might say were in fine voice. It leant considerably to the atmosphere, which was raucous in the manner we are rapidly becoming accustomed to, following a brief hiatus of several seasons when voices were dulled by the paucity of the rugby on show.
Ulster meanwhile are producing the goods on the pitch with a fine technical and disciplined display of keeping the ball up the proverbial jumper. So good was their first half keep-ball that at the end of the half, Edinburgh’s tackle count was 101.
Ulster, having kept tight rein on the ball for the first 3 minutes of the game and gained about 3 metres just outside their 22, inspired Cap’n Grumpy to predict they would battle to the halfway line by halftime. Progress into a fierce wind was just that at times, a matter of millimetres gained.
Disappointingly in the second, with Edinburgh pinned inside their own half our impatience to lay hands on the ball, allowed them back in the match when the excellent Berdos lost patience and binned Ferris. We did recover and with iHumph kicking that critical penalty we closed out the game.
A good win and good to watch leaving Kimble in magnanimous form afterwards as he elucidated on the many facets of life in the boondocks. He is promising to install himself in the Rosie next Saturday and bring his old man along. I hope the old boy will leave the Rosie with the biggest of smiles following an Ulster victory.
That victory is an elusive animal and we will have to break the tradition of 10 years or more of not winning in England. You somehow feel this has become a psychological issue rather than one of physicality or skill. Simply the mindset required to win away from the home comforts of Ravenhill is still missing.
I will not predict a victory though I realise we are at some point going to break the duck of not winning on English soil in the Heineken. I hope it is Saturday and indeed optimism is at an all time high amongst the players and supporters alike, so why not? The dream of winning a quarter final place in the main competition is way beyond us I feel though a place in the Amlin cup isn’t. The dread factor would be not coming up trumps at all.
When one looks back for a key moment, it was in Edinburgh when iHumph missed a penalty and a 7 point lead was all we had to show for our superiority. This inspired Edinburgh to go one and win. A turning point which we can now look back on, as not just a missed kick, but as a missed opportunity to kick on.
If there is anything needed to motivate the players to victory it is this. Munster, Leinster and Connacht all look to have qualified for the knockout stages of one or the other competition. Ulster don’t want to be left out of competition come April and May whilst all the other provinces enjoy that feeling of trying to win a cup.
As BJ Botha might say, “we’re gonna do it! calm yourself man.”