Brian McLaughlin’s selection for Ulster’s final home game of the season could equally be described as either overly cautious or unambitious – or are they merely different words to describe the same state of mind? In omitting Rory Best, Dan Tuohy and Stephen Ferris from their matchday selection, Ulster went a long way to ceding the match to Leinster before the game had even kicked off. With John Afoa suspended from action due to his reckless tackle on Munster’s Felix Jones in that epic Heineken Cup quarter-final fixture of a fortnight ago, the northern province’s pack was reduced to half strength; unlike the European champions, they don’t have the depth to seamlessly replace missing first-teamers.
Even with those three internationals safely packed away in cotton wool, McLaughlin will have some injury worries on his mind as he heads into the HEC semi-final against Edinburgh. Chris Henry was the first to leave the pitch with a dodgy ankle after only eighteen minutes, Paddy Wallace joining him in the dugout before halftime with what looked like a bad knock to the head. After ten minutes of the second half, the company was made a crowd by South African No8 Pedrie Wannenburg, who accepted a nice ovation in his last match at Ravenhill as he left the field of play. It was a rare moment of appreciation from the home fans. The locals have perfected their own version of the Bronx Cheer, and weren’t slow to get in some practice any time the referee ruled against them, or if they suspected the visitors of dubious methods at the breakdown, or if the wind blew or there were a few drops of rain.
It seems paradoxical to describe conservatism as a streak: it’s something less dynamic, like a mark, or a brand. Whatever way you label it, McLaughlin carries it. Maybe it’s one of the reasons why David Humphreys – universally acknowledged to be the man who pulled the cord on McLaughin’s career as head coach of the province – went looking for somebody else to take Ulster forward. Ulster were still in with a chance in two competitions if they won this game, but the former schoolteacher didn’t want to take the risk of playing Best, Tuohy and Ferris in a bid to knock over the champions and keep themselves in the mix for the league shakedown, so now all their eggs are in one basket.
It was understandable that with a fixture against Connacht in the Sportsgrounds scheduled for the week after the Thomond Park quarter-final, he rested the men who had put in such an enormous effort the previous week. In a high-pressure environment like that knock-out game against Munster, it was similarly understandable that he stuck with the starting fifteen for the entire eighty minutes. However, it leaves the three aforementioned players – and they’re key players in Ulster’s gameplan – a little short of a hit-out going into the make-or-break semi-final with Edinburgh.
Maybe it makes sense to walk before you can run. Ulster want the European Cup a hell of a lot more than they want the Pro12, and resting players is a reasonable approach to prioritisation. Has McLaughlin acted too cautiously, though? Ulster look to have the beating of Edinburgh in next weekend’s semi-final, but Mick Bradley is a canny cup-merchant, and his Scottish side were able to turn over a powerful Toulouse side in the quarters despite going down to 13 men for a portion of the game. McLaughlin’s side can’t afford to start slow, and they will need to grab the chances afforded to them. Time to go balls out for glory …