How’s your optometer bearing up post pre season?

In the abstract a rugby team requires elements you cannot simply coach into them, though Matt Williams being something of an expert in the art of motivation might well instil a degree of mental strength. These elements might be summarised as

(i) Mental strength

(ii) Team/squad unity

(iii) Physiological robustness

During a game these attributes could be in my opinion embellished further by aspiring to have the following:

(i) Tactical nous (or in plain language – being streetwise).

(ii) Clinical precision in executing a game plan

(iii) A certain cynicism towards the laws of the game.

The last element I hesitate to use but having seen our opponents employ such tactics one forms a certain opinion that if you can’t beat them, join them.

Elements of the game that can be coached are fitness, basic skills and the game plan itself.

With the 3 friendlies now firmly water under, what is my opinion, a still slightly trembling bridge, it is possible to review optimism levels and assess the team from a spectator point of view. I’ve been to all 3 games thus far and to be honest I’m none the wiser. My only consolation is that Ulster’s opponents in the Magners or Heiny should they have dropped in will be none the wiser either.

Comparisons can be odious but also necessary, so perhaps the benchmark for improvement was set last season by performances on the pitch. Still the residue of that experience lingers. It hangs like smoke from the fading sound of cannon fire over the terrace as supporters willing to give the team a lift it so badly desires see echoes of past performance re-enacted during the current run of games.

The fading throes of last season’s horibillis is still echoed in the silence that befalls the crowd on the Terrace as it did on Wednesday night towards the end of the game. As if they cannot quite believe Ulster have somehow dispatched the vestiges of bad habits that blighted our season past. Shadows pass over them as if haunted with each error on the pitch. Perhaps we spectators must adopt a more positive mindset and accept that pre season, errors will occur. Over the last 3 games the same mistakes have popped up irrespective of who is on the pitch and that has to be a slight concern.

Perhaps the most criminal has been the inability to take chances when within 20 metres of our opponents line. Worcester and Bath showed us how to make the most of an opportunity when it presents itself. This was a familiar story last season as opponents gobbled up chances whilst we pounded the line before knocking on or conceding a penalty. Both Bath and Worcester demonstrated how, when the sniff of a chance came they poured bodies into the breach in support as Ulster ran out of defenders. On the other hand, in the same situation we allowed our point of attack to become static and the defenders to regroup.

The ability to spot the gaps and think as a unit in exploiting opportunities cannot be taught by coaching alone. It comes from up top and is a focus that separates ruthless teams from ones who strive to achieve. At the moment the Ulster team strives to achieve that clinical ability and on the strength of our friendly showings we are just that, friendly to the opposition.

The intensity in play that allows teams to stay focussed, cuts down the number of knock ons, stupid penalty give-aways and turnovers. We do not appear to have developed any further from last season in this department. Same old culprits to boot as well. In mitigation there has been little in the way of cohesion allowed to develop in the 3 games played.

However certain elements of the team as units, in the backrow and second row for example appear to be gelling. Players such as Rob Dewey are beginning to show the promise that made their initial purchase a good buy but for awhile thereafter looked like a dud spend. It is impossible to gauge Ulster’s progress against Worcester when there was such lack of consistency of selection. One wonders also if defeat does not have a deeper psychological impact. You could argue the display against Worcs was actually quite good given the amount of possession we gained against a full strength GP team whilst fielding our own experimental version. Still a win is better than a plucky or unlucky defeat.

Whilst out for a dander this morning I saw two crows sitting atop a lampost squabbling over scraps and I declined to walk beneath. Metaphorically this is how I view Ulster’s coming season. With distinct caution. As the first league game of the year approaches it is imperative we get a win. Any old win will do, hopefully minus any emphatic crushing victory which is likely to breed a false sense of complacency for the campaign ahead. The Scarlets are a team struggling so it should not present a huge challenge to beat them. Given Ulster’s still fragile mindset though one will not be approaching the hallowed old ground with any sense of arrogance, though the players must adopt a positive mindset in their own ability.

One must believe that we have spent well in the off season, recruited boldly and adjusted our backroom backup to a higher level. Belief too that the silly errors, gratuitous fouls and lack of cutting edge near our opponents line will miraculously vanish in the heat of competition. As I said in the last blog, somewhere down the line the hype by UR will collide irrevocably with rugby reality on the pitch and the resulting meshing of gears could be painful. That moment could arrive as early as this Friday night. However, I expect the team to achieve the following:

(i) Mental strength as a unit

(ii) Team/squad unity

(iii) Physiological robustness

(iv) Tactical nous (or in plain language – being streetwise).

(v) Clinical precision in executing a game plan

(vi) A certain cynicism towards the laws of the game.

If they can achieve positive ratings in all the aforementioned areas then I believe we will have a successful season.

C’mon ULSTERRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!! BELIEVE!!!!