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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 15 February, 2019

Cold comfort for Ulster as they fall a long way short

Application was the only consolation Rory Best could put a finger on after a sound beating away to Wasps.

Sean Farrell reports from the Ricoh Arena

FROM THE SECOND the pilot announced there was snow on the runway and casually dropped in mentions of Manchester and Liverpool as ‘nearby’ landing options, you could tell it was going to be a long day.

A general view of the snow outside the Ricoh Arena before the match 21/1/2018 Source: James Crombie/INPHO

While Ireland was hosed down with torrential rain, England’s midlands were hit by snow. The soft track we expected at the Ricoh, to the north of Coventry, was made all the softer for the ground’s undersoil heating.

As seats and desks in the stands were mopped of their slush and laptops hidden beneath plastic coverings, Wasps had their own early struggles with the conditions. However, they had a point to prove after last week’s loss to Harlequins. And with blindside Jack Willis and openside Guy Thompson working impressively in tandem to hound Ulster at every ruck, the flowing back-line fuelled by Danny Cipriani and accelerated by Kyle Eastmond and Juan de Jongh soon stopped dropping passes when they sought width.

Once the ball began to stick for Christian Wade and Willie le Roux, the writing was on the wall for Ulster and the were stretched to breaking point.

Eight days earlier, Rory Best had called on Ulster to back up their big display against La Rochelle and make it count. Despite the 26 – 7 beating, the captain feels he got the application he was looking for from his team.

“It was bitterly disappointing not to get the quarter-final,” a downcast Best said in the wake of their slide from first to third in Pool 1.

“But we look at some of the aspects we asked to back up: our energy, enthusiasm and physicality were actually there.

Rory Best dejected late in the game 21/1/2018 A mud-coated Best watches on after being replaced. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It’s just the innaccuracies. And, in those tough conditions… it felt like in the first half every time we got a foothold, we coughed it up or gave away a penalty and we just went back.

“Then, any balls we were taking, we were just double catching at it, getting a bit of back shoulder and having to check and that played into their hands in terms of the breakdown because we couldn’t get front foot.

To be fair to their six and seven, it was hard to tell which was which. They were over everything and any time we got something going, a lot of the time, they killed it.”

For Ulster now, the energy boost that the Champions Cup has brought to their stuttering season and raised levels far above the often dispiriting Pro14 displays, is now  unavailable. The rest of the campaign will be targeted solely on the league. And, were they to lift a trophy in the Aviva Stadium in May, it would be the ultimate salvage job.

Realistically, however, it’s difficult to see this Ulster team advancing beyond the first play-off stage. With Scarlets and Leinster well clear of the northern province in conference B, Ulster must ensure they keep hold of third place and earn a knock-out trip most likely to Limerick or Bloemfontein. Winning at either venue is tough, but Champions Cup qualificaion for next season would at least be secured.

Nizaam Carr and Stuart McCloskey 21/1/2018 Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For Best, it wasn’t the time to forecast possible outomes for what remains of Ulster’s season. He will go to away with Ireland this week and any bounceback from his team must happen before he, Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale and Rob Herring return.

Grow, be more consistent and learn to fill in the troughs that undermine Ulster at their impressive peak, that’s what would represent a successful season now for Best.

“If we can keep growing in our preparation and keep producing that level of physicality that we showed over the last two weeks.

“We’re bitterly disappointed. We’d put ourselves in a great position to go and win (the pool), but I still feel we’re building and we’ve got to just keep improving.

Iain Henderson dejected after the game  21/1/2018 Iain Henderson walks off the field after defeat in Coventry. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“As difficult as it is, we’ve got to take positives from that and really look at why we fell down.

“It was really nice to say it wasn’t the physicality. And I think we as players have been guilty of that at times this season. Away to Leinster, it got away from us and we let it get away from us. I think there was a fight and resolve (against Wasps) to try and stay in a game that wasn’t going our way.

Something like that is something we’ve got to build on. But we’ve got to try to not let games get into that scenario, we’ve got to win big moments that turn the game.

“We had a few opportunities to do that at 7 – 7 or 14 – 7 just to  stay with them when they were in the ascendancy. That’s what good teams do and that’s probably what we’ve got to do.”

The runway was de-iced promptly and the pilot expertly stuck the landing. If only Ulster could have done the same.

Ulster left to lick their wounds, but Stockdale knock won’t keep him out of Six Nations

Munster well worth the wait as they book record quarter-final date in style

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Sean Farrell

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