It’d be remiss of me to not write about the tragic passing of Anthony Foley before getting to anything else. I heard about Foley passing away at half time of Ulster’s match against Bordeaux, and was stunned. Having lost the first person close to me the week before, I was emotional enough, but seeing a father, husband and someone who has so obviously touched many lives taken so young just doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think I can say anything that hasn’t already been said – and Munster gave the best tribute to the man on Saturday – I do find solace in the fact that the rugby world has come together to remember someone who gave his life to the game, in a number of touching ways. Rest in Peace Axel.
After two weeks of European rugby, Ulster find themselves in the unfortunately familiar position of ruing missed opportunities, and a somewhat concerning trend.
Round 1: Bor-d’oh
Against Bordeaux, Ulster started strong with a nicely worked try for the returning Andrew Trimble, before going on for the guts of fifty minutes against some seriously heavy-looking Bordeaux ball-carriers with only a penalty or two whenever they could break into the UBB half. Despite a – relatively – valiant display, they conceded a try courtesy of Sébastien Taofifenua and the floodgates opened. It has to be said that the Ulstermen happened to open the floodgates themselves, in something that you’d imagine Lemony Snicket had written rather than a rugby team coached to win a game. That first Bordeaux try came thanks to poor execution on a defensive scrum, and missing a number of elementary tackles at the restarts thereafter, Ulster managed to concede a penalty try which – while unfortunate – wasn’t going to be the worst of Ulster’s problems.
With the score sitting at 22-13, Ulster were a single score outside bonus-point territory, and did a good job to move in close to the Bordeaux posts to hit a drop goal or a penalty to earn themselves that crucial losing bonus point. Sure enough, on 78 minutes JP Doyle obliges with a penalty against Bordeaux, but unfortunately Paul Marshall – that man again – decided to do his best Morgan Parra impression and took a quick tap, despite Ulster most likely not having enough time to try and work their way down the field again and needing a good 10 metres to score. Sure enough, Bordeaux turned the ball over and went the length of the field, ensuring Ulster would go home without a thing.
Round 2: Chief Concerns
This week, Ulster welcomed the also winless Exeter Chiefs to Belfast, with Ulster natives Gareth Steenson and Ian Whitten being welcomed home, alongside their English stars Geoff Parling, Henry Slade and Thomas Waldrom. Ulster were able to welcome back human highlight reel Charles Piutau and included Tommy Bowe on the bench.
While not as fluent as they started against Bordeaux, Ulster managed to take the lead thanks to a brilliant run through a bamboozled Exeter defence by Piutau, with Reidy on hand to bust through to score the try on 30 minutes. While they couldn’t add any further tries, they showed some good endeavour to keep the Chiefs under pressure.
For minutes 50-70 though Ulster seemed to be their own worst enemies, losing a lot of their attacking edge and letting Exeter back into the game with a series of penalties, and consistently proving to struggle with handling the restarts, compounding on the pressure. You got the sense that Ulster were happy to defend their lead, and it was telling that they only seemed to come to life when Exeter came within two points and then took the lead with a sweetly struck drop-goal from Steenson.
Being a point behind seemed to finally wake Ulster up, winning the restart and busting down the field to set up Paddy Jackson to play “anything you can do…” and nail a drop goal of his own, saving Ulster’s blushes.
As it stands, Ulster sit third in the pool, behind pool and competition leaders Clermont Auvergne – who have set the pace by earning 10 match points out of 10 – and Bordeaux who earned themselves a four-try bonus point at the Stade Marcel Michelin. I don’t think it would be harsh to say that they’re not looking like a pool-winning side, or even a best-runner up side at the minute. While the attacking shape looked better against Exeter, it looked more pretty than effective for large portions of the game, with Exeter adapting to the oncoming rain more effectively.
After the shambles of a last ten minutes against Bordeaux, Ulster needed their leadership players to step up, and the likes of Rory Best, Franco van der Merwe, Jared Payne, Charles Piutau and Andrew Trimble certainly did that. One concern was that Iain Henderson only lasted 40 minutes, and that likely contributed to Ulster losing some attacking edge.
Paddy Jackson hasn’t had his best games, but he certainly didn’t cost Ulster the Bordeaux game, and he showed great composure to hit the drop goal with the Exeter game on the line, which may prove crucial when Ulster travel to Exeter in round 5.
Next up for Ulster will be Munster, fresh off of visiting 2006 to put in a performance Axel would have been proud of. Not much to say other than it’ll likely be some game!