Ulster’s Strong Conservative Element

The very picture of happiness!

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 …

3 thoughts on “Ulster’s Strong Conservative Element

  1. Balls out indeed, I think his selection was actually quite interesting. Obviously Paddy Jackson had a good game and best of all Declan Fitzpatrick held his own after a 5 month layoff. I was more worried about Edinburgh before this match as I feared for our scrum in the absence of Afoa.

    Now if McLaughlin was to pick PJ ahead of Humphs next week that would be a ballsy selection yet logical as Humphs form has been pretty dire for a while now. Yes it would have been nice to have been in with a shout in the league but I think considering Ulster’s limited squad depth it might be more beneficial to concentrate on one piece of silverware.

    McLaughlin gave the reserve team a chance against Connacht to feed of the feel good factor that the team had created with the win in Thomond park and unfortunately too many of the players failed to stand up. Injury to Paul Marshall didn’t help as I think the PM/Pienaar axis is great at finishing teams off.

    The Leinster game had great intensity and I think it’s great preparation for both teams. Fingers crossed for the injured Ulster players.

    Now to next week and a great day out in the Aviva!

  2. I was surprised that Best and Ferris were left out as I thought that they would get a run ahead of the SF. The Jackson selection was interesting and now I think McLaughlin must pick him for the semi. He was fantastic and did not look at all out of place playing against one of the best 10s in Europe. The other highlight was an excellent outing for Deccie Fitz and there is no question that a front row of Court, Best, Fitzp looks much stronger than Paddy Mac at loose head with Court at 3. I thought Diack went well and would like to see him on the bench ahead of Falloon. I’m not sure why Spence wasn’t on the bench but would expect him to be in the starting 23 next week.

    A very mixed evening for Ulster. I agree with Mole and would have preferred a more ambitious approach but the two interesting selections both worked a treat and hopefully Ulster will be stronger as a result.

    My team for SF (injuries permitting)

    Court, Best, Fitzp, Muller, Tuohy, Ferris, Henry, Wannenburg, Pienaar, Jackson, Gilroy, Wallace, Cave, Trimble, Terblanche Brady, McAlister, Macklin, Stevenson, Diack, Marshall, Spence, D’Arcy

  3. It was great to see a team with four Irish props in the matchday squad. Ulster look to have their succession planning for Afoa well mapped out with a reasonable outing from Fitzpatrick on his return from long-term injury and an encouraging performance off the bench from Adam Macklin.

    Going to be fascinating to see the outhalf choice. Dropgoals aside, Iain Humphreys was as an anonymous an outhalf as I’ve ever seen in a HEC QF. Could be that it’s the start of the Paddy Jackson era in Ravenhill.

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