This is always a hard report to write. First game of the season, new, coach, new team, home game and a defeat. Natural loyalty to Ulster makes it difficult to pan the team to much but you can’t overlook some basic inadequacies.
Let’s get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first. This defeat can be placed solely at the feet of the coaching staff. Llanelli were better prepared and looked sharper all over the pitch. Their pre-season obviously appears to have been spent working on a settled side whereas Ulster’s was spent in experimentation. This was the first time that this starting fifteen had played together and unfortunately it showed. Llanelli were much quicker from kick off and their greater cohesion at the breakdown nullified any advantage Ulster had in the first half from the elements. When Ulster did start to gel, during the last quarter, they had left themselves with too much to do.
Starting Paddy at 10 was another mistake. He was obviously put there in anticipation of a running game and this would have been no bad thing against Stephen Jones, but as soon as the rains came down Williams should have had the courage to reconsider his selection and put the steadier O’Connor in place. Moving Wallace to the centre would have had the added benefit of keeping the two relatively inexperienced Llanelli centres on their toes. As it was Jones completely dominated the game until O’Connor came on.
Williams should also have considered the selection of Nagusa. Timoci has, not unexpectictly, struggled in the pre-season. While there is no doubt that he will be a valuable asset once he gets up to speed, selecting him to make his competitive debut in atrocious conditions was a big ask. There were times when it looked like the only thing on Timoci’s mind was the time of the next flight back to Fiji. This would have been an ideal game for the abrasive McCrea or, more probably, the ever reliable Cunningham should have been brought on at full back and Schifcofske moved to the wing.
Despite the defeat, there was plenty on the positive side. It must be remembered that the weather dictated the style of play and Ulster were unfotunate to be facing one of the worlds best out halfs at playing these conditions. The boys definately played for the shirt and once the correct structure was put in place they did look decidely more dangerous. Clinton looks a class act, Ed O’Donaghue was abrasive up front and Diack has great positional play (unfortunately we witnessed it mostly in defence)! Overall defence was good apart from one missed tackle by Trimble who took time to get up to speed. The much vaunted Botha looks worth every penny and, after the first couple of scrums, Ulster looked comfortable up front. Caldwell and Pollock looked good when they came on and there is going to be some genuine compteition for places this season.
Only time will tell if Williams’ decision to have a look at the entire squad during the pre-season was the right thing to do. In hindsight it may have been better to develop a basic match 22 and then introduce others throughout the season, but this can have it’s pitfalls too, particularly if there is a high injury count. Winning is a habit and my preference would have been to start the strongest side available for each of the pre-season games bringing on some of the fringe players when the game was won or lost.
The boys were very keen to win this one and they were very keyed up prior to the game. Perhaps they put too much pressure on themselves and this was compounded by the pre match retoric comming out from the Fortress Ravers publicity machine. However the atrocious conditions do give them a get out of jail free card and they must now put the game behind them and concentrate on Cardiff next Friday. The Blues had an abrasive game against Leinster on saturday and will have another bruiser against the Ospreys on Tuesday. With nothing to lose Ulster must target this away game for a win and five points from the first two games will put the Magners campaign firmly back on track. See you there!
Clinton seems to have been the one to impress so far. Don’t forget to add your vote for Ulster Man of the Match here.
Not many match pictures this week due to the weather, however here’s the best!