Ulster maintained their unbeaten start to the season securing an important away win against the Ospreys on Saturday evening.
It wasn’t pretty, with plenty of mistakes from both sides, but Ulster’s late dominance of the scrum was enough to secure the win. Having failed to win in Wales last season Ulster will be relieved to have got that monkey off their back at the earliest opportunity.
Ulster’s scores came from a Niall O’Connor penalty in the first half with, his second half replacement, Paddy Jackson, adding two penalties and the conversion of Paul Marshall’s winning try late on.
I watched the two halfs over 12 hours apart, with a birthday party in between, and having been disappointed by a poor first half I had hoped that the second half would have been considerably better given that I already knew the final score. Unfortunately the second was nearly as dull as the first the only real difference being that, with the inclusion of Court, Brady and Afoa, Ulster dominated the scrums in the final quarter having been out muscled in the early exchanges.
The first half highlights included some bruising bursts from Nick Williams, some nice touches from Darren Cave and a poor tackle from Payne as he waved through Dirkson for the opening score, converted by Morgan. O’Connor opened Ulster’s account with a penalty on the 32nd minute to take the half time score to 7 – 3.
Ulster brought on Court, Marshall, Brady and Afoa either side of an early Morgan penalty and when the Ospreys outhalf slotted over his second penalty of the evening on the 53 minute to take the score to 13 -3 Ulster rolled out the big guns of Ferris, Jackson and Trimble.
Jackson slotted over a penalty with his first kick on the 56th minute and added another 12 minutes later to take the score to 13 – 9 and by that time the Ulster pack were well on top and dominating the scrums.
It wasn’t until the 75th minute that Ulster made their dominance count with Marshall nipping over to finish off a powerful drive from John Afoa and with Jackson adding the conversion Ulster led for the first time with the score reading 13 – 16 in their favour with five minutes to go.
The visiting pack held on comfortably in the final minutes to close out the game.
Final Score: Ospreys 13 Ulster 16.
Ulster: Jared Payne, Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Michael Allen, Niall O’Connor, Michael Heaney, Callum Black, Rob Herring, Declan Fitzpatrick, Johann Muller (c), Lewis Stevenson, Mike McComish, Sean Doyle, Nick Williams. Replacements: Nigel Brady, Tom Court, John Afoa, Neil McComb, Stephen Ferris, Paul Marshall, Patrick Jackson, Andrew Trimble.
Ospreys: Richard Fussell, Hanno Dirksen, Andrew Bishop, Ashley Beck, Tom Isaacs, Matthew Morgan, Rhys Webb, Ryan Bevington, Richard Hibbard, Aaron Jarvis, Ian Gough, Alun Wyn Jones (c), James King, Justin Tipuric, Jonathan Thomas. Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Duncan Jones, Joe Rees, George Stowers, Joe Bearman, Kahn Fotuali’i, Dan Biggar, Tom Grabham
So, it’s two wins out of two for team Ulster under the direction of new coach Mark Anscombe who, to his credit, has remained singularly unimpressed with the standard of play so far, stating:
“I’m very relieved to come away with the win. It’s never easy to go to Swansea and come away with four points but we’ve achieved that so we have to be pleased. We didn’t play well for 65 minutes but I thought we played very well in the last quarter of an hour and it was great to get the win in the end.
“I was disappointed with the performance in the first 65 minutes. We didn’t look after the ball well enough, we were turned over a lot and we didn’t play territory like we had talked about. We seemed happy to amble through the game and I thought we generally lacked a bit of fizz and didn’t show enough purpose.”
I can’t find the quotes from after the Glasgow game but, from my recollection, I think it was something similar and his analysis of both games would tie in fairly closely with my own assessment.
There have been some pleasing improvements, namely a bit more aggression and competition for the ball at the breakdown, generally supplying the bulk of possession in both games, but the back line, and particularly the half backs, have failed to excite. While much has been made of the form of the returning O’Connor my feeling is that the problem lies one step closer to the scrum with neither scrumhalf demonstrating a reliable service once he heat is turned up.
The next link in the chain is either an outhalf with his confidence shot and trying too hard to impress or a youngster trying to establish his own style, let alone establish a game plan, then minor mistakes can be magnified and the whole back line becomes jittery with timings going to pot.
So do we sit back and wait for the return of St Ruan in October and hope that we grind out enough wins with our big pack or do we try and improve the nine – ten axis via the multitude of coaches at our disposal?
If Anscombe is still expressing his disappointment about the way Ulster have played at the end of September, he won’t be the only one!