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The season so far...

by fermain on Mon Nov 05, 2012 11:43 pm
  • 2 votes
(2 votes)

Having arrived at the first natural break of the season, it seems like a good time to review what has been almost a perfect start to the season. Seven League wins & 2 Heineken Cup wins for a 100% record is without question a start none of us could claim to have foreseen. Sadly it has also been touched by a tragedy which seems to have driven the team onwards united.

Apart from the obvious joy of our position, the second best feature is the sight of our biggest threat, Leinster, languishing in 6th place and currently we enjoy a 9 point advantage with our Zebre game to come. It’s very hard to imagine anything other than that difference expanding to 14.

Here is how the table currently looks:


So this position of strength has given us a huge advantage after roughly a third of the league season. It started competently rather than spectacularly with games against Glasgow, Ospreys & Munster.

Glasgow were beaten 18-10 in a fairly tight encounter with no spectacular rugby. It started badly when Paddy Jackson was hurt after 10 minutes to be replaced by NOC. Ulster struck just before & just after half-time with tries by Michael Allen from a great Jared Payne pass & Craig Gilroy with an intercept and long run in. Ulster had dominated the match but poor placekicking from NOC kept Weegies dangerous and still in the game. Ulster had star performers in Fat Nick Williams & Robbie Diack.
In week 2 off we went to Ospreys. A much changed side had Heaney & NOC at half back & Black Herring & Fat Deccie as the front row. Robbie Diack had suffered an injury and was to miss several games. The team were not clicking and in trouble at 13-3 down into the 2nd half. Ulster had a strong bench which Anscombe emptied within the 1st 15 minutes of the 2nd half. On came Court, Brady & Afoa, Ferris, McComb, Marshall, Jackson & Trimble. Suddenly the scrum decimated Ospreys & a game which was slipping away was rescued by power. Ulster took the lead in the 75th minute when John Afoa went close to a try & Small Paul seized on the ball to touch down.

The last 25 minutes of this game have been instrumental in Ulster’s season where they looked defeat in the face and decided they didn't like what they saw. Overpowering the champions on their own patch was very much a confidence booster.

In game 3 it was home again and familiar foes with Munster the visitors. Munster made a fast start leading 9-0 after 12 minutes but Paddy Jackson kicking superbly got 3 penalties on the board, a superb converted try by Keith Earls the difference as Munster took a 16-9 lead into half-time. Ulster had trailed 16-6, 10 points down as they had been at the Liberty Stadium the previous week.

A second fight back needed then to continue the winning start and as we know they did it again. Within 15 minutes a Paddy Jackson penalty & a try by Jared Payne after strong pressure by the pack nudged Ulster ahead at 17-16. The final quarter was blood & thunder inter-pro rugby, Munster retaking the lead but a few minutes later Jackson restoring Ulster’s lead.

That really should have been it as time ebbed away, but an old “friend” intervened to throw a spanner into the works. Alain Rolland, loved and admired by all Ulstermen with no memory, gave a ludicrous penalty when Trimble tried to tear the ball away from Hurley for a quick throw. From the penalty, Munster launched one of their typical multi-phase attacks trying to work a ROG drop goal or penalty but Ulster’s discipline and defence were top order and they held onto the win.

So three games down, against 3 of last season’s top four and three wins. The season seemed full of promise, then, the day after the Munster game, tragedy struck, rocking the entire club, players, staff & fans alike. The death of three men in the Spence family hit us all like a sledgehammer and an emotional turmoil set in, carrying through the funerals and onwards. The game away to Zebre was postponed and Rugby responded with great warmth towards Ulster as all matches within these islands had a minutes silence & the response from fans of many clubs on this forum was heart-warming. Ulster of course hosted a memorial service, highly appropriate to Nevin’s & his family’s beliefs.

A painting of Nevin by his sister, and heroine, Emma.

Two weeks later, Ulster got back to rugby with NS emblazoned on all shirts, away to Cardiff Blues. There had been concern as to how the players would react on their return & straight from the kick off, Darren Cave knocked on & this precipitated 10 minutes of shaky rugby dominated by Cardiff. It seemed that our worst fears were to be realised, with not a hint of what was to follow.

6-0 down after 9 minutes, Jackson stroked a penalty then young Allen did well under pressure to score but sadly injured himself in the act. He was then subject to a ludicrous offside penalty as he hobbled pack in the next phase of play but at 9-10 approaching 30 minutes everything was about to change. Fat Nick Williams scored the first of his two and further tries were added by Trimble, Payne & 2 more by Tommy Bowe in his return match for Ulster. Final score 19-48, a fitting tribute to Nevin and above anyone’s expectations. This team had shown character and this was to be the start of a run of league matches were the margin of the victories were emphatic.

Next was the emotion of the 1st home game since the Spence tragedy & of course a further silence was observed. The game itself was a strange one, Ulster dominating throughout in a 25-0 win but the absence of a bonus point was a disappointment as Ulster played a strangely dull 38 minutes of the 2nd half before Luke Marshall finally scored the third try with 2 minutes remaining. It seemed like a point had got away from us.

The next two weeks had Heineken Cup matches home to Castres & away to Weegies. The Castres game was most memorable for the return of the peerless Ruan Pienaar who had to emerge from the bench, given Paul Marshall’s excellent form. Re-emerge he did when with 82 minutes on the clock he scored a sublime try with a move from Ulster’s 22 as Castres somewhat surprisingly had opted to keep the game alive. 5 points from the game & off then to Glasgow to play against the Weegies.

As kick off approached on a pleasant Glasgow day, the heavens opened and the game was dictated by the weather, no night at all for running rugby. What followed was a 1st half where things weren’t coming off, not all of which was down to the conditions. At half-time the game was in the balance but here I suspect was the first evidence of Mark Anscombe’s character as Ulster came out and played the exact tactics demanded by the conditions and despite not having the scrum all their own way, they set about Glasgow and a Chris Henry try was the decisive act with Ulster winning 19-8, Weegies getting a late consolation try.

In its own way the Glasgow game was as impressive as the recent try extravaganzas being served up, showing that Ulster could do the job in a variety of ways.

Back then to league action, Ulster went to Newport to face the Dragons and looking for a third win on Welsh soil. Though now on the crest of a wave, unbeaten in both league & HC, Ulster again made a very slow start, indeed Dragons lead 13-7 after 30 minutes. Newport is not a happy hunting ground with only 1 win in 6 visits, that a crucial win to cement a top 4 place 2 seasons ago marked by 2 Nevin Spence tries, one an absolute blinder, to be seen and admired on Jackie Brown’s posts.

As was becoming normal the try to get Ulster moving came when Fat Nick barrelled over and for good measure, just before half-time Ruan Pienaar charged down a kick and added the 3rd Ulster try. Ulster, far from firing on all cylinders, shaded it 19-16 at the break. At 25-19 to Ulster as the hour arrived things were far from settled but 2 tries in a minute, from Darren Cave securing the bonus point, then a smart intercept by Andy Trimble & the game was decided. Just before the end a delicious reverse pass from Paddy Jackson put Jared Payne under the posts and the win was a six try thumping 19-46.
Bringing the season up to date, weakened sides, shorn of many internationals played to a full house as Ulster blitzed Edinburgh 45-20 scoring a further six tries.

It is an unprecedented start to any season by Ulster, all things seem possible as we head into the Autumn Internationals. All however is not plain sailing. We have shipped some bad injuries with Johann Muller, Rory Best, Lewis Stevenson, Sean Doyle all out for prolonged periods and we await news of Stevie Ferris who looked in bad trouble on Friday night.

What we have seen so far is a remarkable squad effort, players who have been called upon have almost without exception stood up & have made their contributions. What follows is not an exhaustive summation of the squad, just my personal highlights so far.

Fat Nick - the man has been an absolute revelation. For a man who seems to have spent more time on the physio’s couch than playing over the last number of years, he is a man reinvigorated by the good Ulster air, and no doubt a few Ulster fries. He has been the very essence of the word barnstorming. He has bludgeoned defences and scored vital tries when most needed.

Jared Payne – how good it has been to see his fantastic form after the shocker of his lost season to injury a year ago, he oozes quality in everything he does and has an amazing influence on those around him.

Callum Black – I am beginning to think that the wee man is our best scrummaging loosie. He has given all opponents as much as they can handle and I don’t recall a backward step. Most impressive was his late appearance against Castres when TC got a yellow card. Not only did the scrum not flinch but we won the penalty period 3-0 & they barely escaped their own half.

Lewis Stevenson - a big hard raw-boned second row, he fights for every ball, wins choke tackles and makes hard yards. He also puts a lot of oomph into the scrum. A real shame that he is lost to us now for a month or so.

Ruan – he isn’t often spectacular, he has a blindingly good all round game, the secret is he just always seems to make the correct decisions. He is simply a privilege to watch.
Nipper Henderson – so impressive in his few games that Kidney had to take him into the international squad. He looks to have an immensely important future at Ulster. He is the most exciting of the emerging players and a star in the making.

Paddy Jackson - Red Paddy to me, alongside Ruan or Small, inside Ould Paddy. He is looking more and more a quality player with every game, his confidence must be blooming by the minute as he has just looked so solid in every game. He tackles, he kicks beautifully from both hand & kicking tee and his passing shows signs of real class like that inside reverse to Jared Payne at Dragons.

Johann of course, John Afoa & Rory just keep churning out quality performances week after week as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Paddy & Darren in the centre look rock solid and both capable of the telling run or pass. These guys are the backbone of the team seldom falling below very good.

We are blessed with fabulous wingers, Craig Gilroy would walk into most teams having come from promising with an iffy defence a couple of seasons back to being a genuine threat who always seems to make ground every time he gets the ball and much more secure in defence. You begin to wonder how long he can be kept off the starting HC team.

So here we sit, top of the league, top of our group. A short break then two Italian trips before a hugely challenging run of fixtures in December. From the positions we have established in both competitions all things are achievable this season.

If we are fortunate with the injury recovery of our guys we can head into the December schedule with confidence, it’s a hell of a ride this season, you wouldn’t want to miss it for the world.

Stan’up :red:



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fermain has been a member since Sat Jun 11, 2005 12:09 am. He/She has posted a total of 26 News item(s) for a total of 12290 post(s).

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