Ulster’s performance sends a shockwave through Europe

The Irish are muscling in on French rugby conversation again. Ulster walloping Montpellier at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir last Saturday has catapulted Mark Anscombe’s squad into talk about eventual Heineken Cup winners.

Ulster’s performance sends a shockwave through Europe

We’ve been here before. Is it different this time? Well, they are genuine competitors now. Two or three years ago, it was easy to compartmentalise them: under-achievers. Always dangerous, but more often than not, manageable.

Saturday’s 8-25 win was the sort of convincing performance and result that make the whole of European rugby sit up. It’s big news in France. Montpellier at home are a serious outfit, top six standard in France. They put 40 points on Clermont in the Top 14, they’re well coached by Fabien Galthie and they’ve been playing with high intensity. And when a French team has that in its locker and gets into their offload game, it usually leads to trouble for the opposition.

Ulster were without Stephen Ferris, Nick Williams, Craig Gilroy and Paddy Wallace. The former duo are forwards who tend to leave their mark on proceedings.

Williams has been a master signing for Ulster and Mark Anscombe has done well in tying him down to a new two-year contract. Things didn’t work for him when he first came to Munster. Timing was a lot of it; that and a plague of injuries. He’s now settled in Belfast with his wife and family and playing for a coach in the literal sense — Anscombe was one of his first coaches at home in North Harbour, Wayne Shelford’s club in New Zealand. He’s followed him around the world a bit.

After Munster, Nick was in Italy with Aironi and it could all have just petered out. Contrast that with seven man-of-the-match performances in a row last season for Ulster. Of course, such accolades are subjective, but that’s a serious performance level in any man’s language, and it was rightfully recognised when he was named Rabo Pro12 player of the season and IRUPA player of the year.

When you are unlucky with injuries, the last thing you need is to be living on your own. Hence he mightn’t have been the happiest of people while in Cork. Boredom probably led to a less than professional outlook on his career. He wasn’t disciplined at the time in terms of his diet but with those issues ironed out, it’s easy to see how he has become a serious unit. This guy can do massive damage to your body.

The irony is that he is such a fantastic human being. Very respectful, great company. I can remember him dancing in my kitchen with my daughter at six or seven in the morning when we went back to the house after a night out. Molly was just a dot in his arms. He has that great Maori trait of human decency, family and a love of music. Put a number eight on his back though...

I don’t have a proper handle yet on how much they’ve advanced as a group since the obliteration by Leinster in the Heineken Cup final two seasons ago. That’s where my question mark lies. Leinster were at their peak then, but we all felt it would be close.

It’s a big step to make in two seasons, but the indicators are positive. Again Andrew Trimble seems a completely different player for Ulster than he sometimes does for Ireland. That’s what I was referring to earlier in relation to players prospering more in one camp than another.

Paddy Jackson also has a lot to offer. He’s still 21 but he’s showing maturity in his performances. International rugby is top-of-the-tree stuff and there have been moments in big games when it all seemed a bit early for him. But when he gets to 23 and 24, he is going to have a lot more game time in the thin-air of top level rugby than many of his contemporaries. He is brave, intelligent and learning all the while how to manage a game. If I didn’t know him from Irish camp I’d have feared for Jackson after that 2011 final, but I could see he had resilience written all over him.

At international level, with Joe Schmidt’s 34-man squad named, he is evidently a nudge ahead of Ian Madigan, even if it’s been an incredibly frustrating time for the Leinster 10.

He’s not playing rugby regularly enough; if he was, how good could he be? These are all ifs and buts, I don’t know what the selection criteria is going to be, but Madigan has done little wrong. And yet he is not in the shop window at present, which is where any professional sportsperson wants to be. This isn’t Matt O’Connor’s issue. I have no credible evidence to say anyone is whispering in the Leinster coach’s ear about Madigan’s game time, but his primary responsibility is to produce results for Leinster, and that means picking the best team to win games for his employers. And he’s dead right.

Of course the counter argument is that the IRFU are in charge of the provinces and their obligation is to prepare the national team to the best of its ability.

Munster’s Rabo assignment in Glasgow tonight should have more of an edge than your average post-Heineken Cup fixture. Nobody in the squad will forget the hammering we took there last year. That can’t happen again. A win in Scotstoun would help to maintain the momentum after the boost of the Gloucester result last Saturday.

It’s good to see James Coughlan being acknowledged with his belated and overdue call-up and he is one of the leaders who is going to have to drive this revival from within. We (I keep using that word, I know!), haven’t won anything in a few years and that needs to change. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, because people will flock to see winners and no matter how loyal you are (and there was 20-odd thousand loyal followers again on Saturday), to get the ‘sunshine supporters’ — there’s always a few sunshine supporters — you have to be winning. At the minute, people feel they’re not missing anything special, whereas when there’s an expectation of big victories, people go along for the fear of missing something. At the moment, the sunshine supporters feel they are not going to miss anything. That comes with us not winning a European Cup since 2008.

There’s a lot of squad competition in Munster, but whereas in previous years, you had a team full of dominant personalities, now fellas are just finding their feet.

That’s the reality. Conor Murray is only playing at this level since the World Cup of 2011, that’s two years ago. Ian Keatley is in his first phase of Heineken Cup rugby. And that’s your half-back partnership.

Also, you can’t underestimate the all-round ability Dougie Howlett brought to the Munster team. He has slipped quietly into retirement, but we are talking about one of the game’s greatest players. Ever.

I would put him at that level. He is the leading All Black try scorer. Still. I’d like to think at some stage he might get the call for a role with Munster. He still lives in Cork, after all.

- The Irish Examiner has produced a special tribute booklet for the Munster and Ireland rugby legend, packed with analysis and highlights from commentators such as Donal Lenihan, Simon Lewis, and Charlie Mulqueen. Download it for free here

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