Ulster have nothing to lose
Ulster were always going to be the underdogs no matter how they made it into the final but given the way they beat Edinburgh in the Guiness PRO14 semi-final Dan McFarland’s team should be even less burdened by any expectations in Saturday’s final at the Aviva Stadium.
Leinster’s workmanlike 13-3 win over Munster however produced a mixed back of feelings. The knives seem to be coming out for Munster’s South African coach Johann van Graan as he failed to reach the final despite critics feeling he has the team to do it. Watch this space carefully as things seem to change on a dime in the world of Rugby.
Ulster’s win over Edinburgh however was far more dramatic especially after being down 12 points at two seperate junctures in the second half of the match. Somehow they managed to come back from the dead to win 22-19 with a last gasp Ian Madigan penalty in the final minute of the game sailing through the uprights. It was a cruel way for Edinburgh to bow out of what would have been their first PRO14 final as it looked like they had game completely under control while Ulster were making so many mistakes it looked as if they could simply kiss their chance at a spot in the final goodbye. Somehow though Ulster managed to hang on and claw their way back and then came the penalty in the 80th minute, a lifeline they so desperately needed.
“It doesn’t matter who we are, we know no-one will give us a chance against Leinster,” said McFarland of Saturday’s all Irish final at Aviva Stadium.
“But we will prepare properly, we’ll come up with a game plan we hope will work and we’ll give it a shot. I wouldn’t say I was confident at 12 points down, not the way we were playing up until that point. We had made a lot of mistakes. We hadn’t played particularly well.”
Well he’s one hundred percent right about that. Ulster were really poor for long periods of the game and on any promising looking build ups invariably their handling let them down as it was strewn with errors. However….this is the entire point, they were poor and STILL managed to win although it must be said they were pretty impressive when they finally gained momentum in the last quarter of the match.
Ulster had been less than ordinary in their previous two league games after coming back from the COVID-19 inflicted lay-off so it could be argued that they’ve eventually found some form and after winning a game like this at Murrayfield where they were up against it but somehow found the bottle to fight back will no doubt provide them with a boost of confidence going into the final.
They’re well aware of the difficulty of travelling to Aviva and winning but they’ve just won an away game at Murrayfield to get into the final so surely they must fancy their chances of doing it again?
For both the losing teams it would have been easy for the coaches to apportion individual blame but admirably both have chosen not to.
JJ Hanrahan boasts a success rate of 90% when kicking for goal for Munster this season yet he missed two sitters in the semi-final which may have possibly caused a big change in the game.
“Yeah, look, they were crucial. We had limited opportunities in a semi-final and we didn’t convert them,” said Van Graan in response to the inevitable post-match question about Hanrahan’s misses.
“But, you know, we as a group, we win together and we lose together. We’ll take those penalties as a group. I thought we built a lot of pressure between the 50th and 65th minutes, and then we didn’t convert those chances. Leinster went down the other side of the pitch and went up 13-3. We had a chance after that, in the 77th minute, to get a maul try but Leinster stopped it.”
However as disconsolate as Hanrahan was after the final whistle it simply couldn’t compare to the way Edinburgh’s reserve hooker, Mike Willemse, felt after the Murrayfield game. In the dying minutes of the game it was his knockdown that presented Ulster with the penalty that would proceed to break the Edinburgh hearts and send them out the competition.
Coach Richard Cockerill refused to highlight this as their reason for the loss he simply stated that the team wasn’t good enough and it pretty much got what it deserved.
“It’s disappointing when you are 19-7 ahead. We didn’t control the game. All credit to Ulster, it’s all of our own making, we should have made better decisions and we should have executed better. It’s not good enough from us,” said the former England hooker.
“In these games it’s the little things which make the difference and some of our players clearly don’t understand what that looks like. We’ve got international Test players with Scotland and they should know better. We’ve had enough opportunities to learn and we didn’t deliver. It’s got to improve and quickly.”