Well that was gutting. 25 minutes to go and 10 points up. A win and we get a home quarter final with all the benefits to the club that brings. I turned to my mate and said “Just don’t fuck it up” that was all we needed to do.
Ulster are a good side, no question, but the All Blacks they ain’t. They never really looked like breaking us down in phase play and their only chances had come from Tigers back three failing to deal with garryowens. Feeding off your opponents mistakes is a classic tactic and one our best teams were more than capable of executing but when you have a 10 point lead against teams like that you just have to not fuck it up.
Nigel Owens interesting interpretation of the ruck and maul gave Tigers nightmares as Ulster seemed much more used to the interpretations of the Pro12 official. Neutral referees should be the bed rock of professional sport. Neutral in all aspects. Obviously partisan supporters cannot ref their own side, and former players should not ref their old teams.
But more subtle is the different nationality referee from the same league such as Welshman Owens refereeing Ulster. I’m not suggesting that Owens favoured Ulster out of some Celto conspiracy, even I’m not that mental (after the match), but as a referee in their domestic league he will be more exposed to their tactics and Ulster will be more attuned to his idiosyncrasies. It could also work the other way as he may be more aware of their player’s reputations for certain offences. This is clearly not a level playing field.
Every time Ulster attacked Tigers gave away a penalty of one type or another, yet when it was our turn with ball in hand getting a penalty was like getting blood from a stone. They were obviously magnificently disciplined, especially with the off side which they certainly did not transgress at all. Especially from kicks. Paragons of virtue.
But at the end of the day we fucked it up. In the first half Graham Kitchener latched on to Steve Mafi’s pass and sprinted into a chasm in the Ulster defence. We had to score. We didn’t. Kitchener was bundled into touch by the Ulster full back. We managed to get that 10 point lead principally through three scrum penalties and a hard worked try.
Ironically it was our own garryown that sculpted the try. After Flood’s highball was not dealt with Tom Youngs and Anthony Allen made strong yards. The province never regained their shape and Flood probed a gap with a delicious grubber kick. Morris grounded for the try despite the illegal attentions of Paddy Jackson’s early tackle.
A ten point lead. At home. I can’t remember many collapses that bad full stop, let alone in such a crucial game. The gap was cut when Tom Youngs was pinged in a ruck. It was erased when Pienaar charged down Flood and converted his own grounding. Pienaar charged from Flood’s blindside and caught him unawares after yet another Ulster garryowen. It was pure sloppiness from Flood combined with terrific workrate from Pienaar.
To rub salt into the deepest wound it was a penalty for offside that cost us the game. It was clearly offside but to pick that ruck, amongst the several hundred in the game to enforce the law but no others was laughable really. Ulster had an exact replica off the retreating defender never being on side in the previous Tigers attack.
But we still had chances. Flood booted a rare penalty awarded to the Tigers in open play a full 70 yards to gain terrific position from a line out with only 5 minutes to go. We attacked powerfully. The defence was holding but only just. Mele was on by now and firing the passes out like a man possessed. With the line begging Flood steamed onto a Mele pass but could not hold on.
Tigers had a series of scrums in mid field roughly 30 meters out with only 3 minutes remaining. A draw was no good so surely Tigers would look to play the ball? They chose to drive. Ulster collapsed but Owens only awarded the re-set. Again we drove; again we powered forward as Ulster went round the side. Again Owens re-set. We went again. We lost the scrum.
We win two scrums with no reward yet Ulster wins one and gains the crucial penalty.
This was unbelievably frustrating from the stands. A penalty only gained us a few yards, and our try had come from outside the 22 at any rate. Why not get the ball in play and take our chances? What were we seeking to gain? Or are Gibson and Mele actually bereft of the skill to clear the ball from a retreating scrum?
With one final, final chance we had the ball deep in our own half but thoughtlessly went wide, for a change, and were forced into touch. I just don’t understand what our players are thinking some times. The pass to Morris wasn’t going to put him clear so why throw it? We seemed obsessed by getting it wide rather than committing defenders and running straight.
A fourth home game without victory this season is grim reading, especially with an Anglo-Welsh game and Saracens still to come.
The other results dictate that we head to Clermont, on a run of 71 successive home wins, in the quarter finals. They have to lose sometime. Might as well be us.