Having followed Ulster pretty constantly for the last twelve years it’s somewhat disturbing to witness the seismic shift in expectations for the team this season
After so many years of travelling in hope rather than expectation I still find myself surprised to hear and read the overall appreciation of the team from those outside the Province.
I think there is something in the Ulster, and particularly the Northern Ireland, identity that perversely enjoyed the barren years, the us against the world, the punchy underdog tag and even the sometimes, frankly, bigoted reporting from the southern press (which I suppose was marginally better than just being ignored by the UK press! ) as we flattered to deceive and embraced one false dawn after another.
In truth we were never that bad, but we did lack the confidence of our Southern cousins in Munster and then Leinster and we did not fulfil our potential.
Things are changing and changing at a surprising rate. Living and working in Galway the last six months I’m constantly surprised by the genuine warmth and respect from our provincial rivals that surrounds this current team. Everyone loves a winner, but they genuinely want Ulster to do well and as I watch the ScrumV coverage of last nights game on iPlayer I’m astounded at the eulogising of Ulster that the normally one eyed commentary team are doing during the match coverage. In truth it all makes me feel a little uneasy – my goodness they are even calling us European Champions!
Perhaps it’s because of those previous twelve years of fairly constant heartbreak, but I’m still finding it difficult to see it as others do and during the match I was sitting waiting for a catastrophic collapse right up to the last fifteen minutes but it’s slowly beginning to dawn on me that this is a different Ulster than those we’ve seen previously.
The first half was a fairly scrappy affair with the Dragons going into a 6 – 0 lead thanks mostly to Ulster mistakes and some excellent kicking form Dragons full back Prydie. Ulster settled their nerves on the 16th minute with an excellent break from Pienaar expertly picked up and dotted down by big Tom Court to silence the crowd! Pienaar Converted and Ulster took the lead with the score reading Dragons 6 Ulster 7.
The lead changed hands on the half hour mark with Tuilagi making it look easy as he smashed through the Ulster defence to score close to the posts and Prydie obliged with the conversion to put the home side in front 13 – 7.
It was a short lived lead for the Welsh outfit as Williams stretched for the line minutes later after a trademark rumble off the back of a ruck and Pienaar took over for the closing minutes of the first half adding the conversion and a charge down try of his own to take the half time score to 16 – 19 with Prydie adding a penalty in between.
The second half was all Ulster who made the difference in class count, despite quite a few mistakes. Pienaar added two early penalties to give Ulster a nine point lead and despite a reply from Prydie it looked as though the result was only going one way. Some delightful play from Cave on the hour mark saw the centre slip over for Ulster’s fourth try of the night and with Trimble scoring an interception try a minute later the game was over as a contest with Ulster leading 19 – 39 with Pienaar converting both.
Ulster rolled out all their subs, resulting in some interesting combinations in the back line and despite a continuation of handling errors a moment of brilliance from Jackson and Payne saw the New Zealander score under the posts with two minutes to go. Pienaar, of course, obliged with the conversion to give a final score of Dragons 19 Ulster 46.
The North’s Awake.
Ulster: Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Craig Gilroy, Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall, Tom Court, Rory Best, Declan Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson, Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry (capt), Nick Williams. Replacements: Nigel Brady, Callum Black, John Afoa, Mike McComish, Roger Wilson, Patrick Jackson, Luke Marshall, Jared Payne.
Dragons: Tom Prydie, Will Harries, Adam Hughes, Andy Tuilagi, Tonderai Chavhanga, Lewis Robling, Jonathan Evans, Owen Evans, Steve Jones (c), Nathan Buck, Adam Jones, Rob Sidoli, Tom Brown, Jevon Groves, Toby Faletau. Replacements: Sam Parry, Nathan Williams, Dan Way, Ian Nimmo, Nic Cudd, Liam Davies, Steffan Jones, Pat Leach.