Ulster put down a huge marker in quest for European Grail

Published Categorised as 2020-21, Editorial, ERCC, Northampton Saints, Provincial Rugby Men, Ulster Rugby Tagged
Ulster v Northhampton Saints

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and judging by the performances and results from the first round of European fixtures in the Champions and Challenge Cups last weekend, there is still plenty of fizz in the tournament.

I had suggested, due to what was a dullish build-up to the start of the premier club competition in Europe, that it was lacking from previous seasons, particularly due to the different format.

But another factor was the Covid stalker I referred to in that article.

Before a ball had been kicked in round one, Scarlets v Bristol had been postponed due to Covid problems for the Welsh region and Bristol collected five match points and a 28-0 win.

Other clubs were impacted. In the Wasps v Munster game, 59 players between both sides were unavailable due to Covid restrictions or injury. Cardiff were able to field a weakened side for their home game against Toulouse.

This week ahead of round two, Saracens had to withdraw from their Challenge Cup game against Pau, but in the Champions Cup, the Montpellier v Leinster game was called off on Thursday due to Covid issues in the Irish Province’s camp, giving the French side a five match point 28-0 win.

And at the time of writing other games were under question due both to Covid cases within respective clubs’ camps as well as new travel legislation being enforced by France.

It does skew the competition somewhat and now one of the teams tipped as favourites to win the European crown, Leinster, will hope that their remaining two pool games will go ahead or that the competition is not dealt the same fate as last season and stopped midway through.

In Leinster’s case however, having won their first game with a bonus point, they are still likely to go through as one of the top eight sides in their pool anyway.

And that brings us nicely on to the standout result from round one, Ulster’s 29 – 23 success over Clermont Auvergne at Stade-Michel Michelin.

A first win in France since 2013 and a first away win over Clermont. And they fully deserved it as well.

Dan McFarland’s side have put themselves right in the mix to position themselves well going into that two-legged round of 16 stage.

A win over Northampton Saints at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night will put Ulster in a strong position and certainly one foot into the knockout stages. When the tournament resumes in January, going to Franklin Gardens and securing another victory would leave them knowing just what they need to secure a top four place in Pool A – and that would be crucial in terms of quarter-finals and semi-finals, as the highest ranked side gets home advantage.

Yes, perhaps I am getting too far ahead of myself, but Ulster have shown in the URC win over Leinster in Dublin and now at Clermont that they may well have taken an important step in their progress.

And that is having resilience and being able to grind out a win when they find themselves in a good position.

I asked Dan McFarland after the victory in France, given the performance against Leinster two weeks earlier and reflecting on the European Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Leicester Tigers at the end of last season when they had one foot in the final by half time, did he feel Ulster were showing resilience.

The answer was yes, but you can back that up in both the Leinster and Clermont games.

Ulster had been leading against Leinster and their old nemesis looked as though they were coming back to haunt them again, drawing level – but McFarland’s side went on to get the job done.

Against Clermont they raced into a 16-0 lead and you knew the French side were going to come back. They did and actually went ahead in the game, but Ulster rallied and got the job done.

Last season and to a degree, the season previous, Ulster went game after game on the domestic front winning match after match, but when it came to big ties against Leinster and Toulouse they were unable to deliver.

They appear to have learned from their losses. We know teams have purple patches and Ulster always found managing that third quarter difficult, but how they are able to weather the storm as well as finding a way to win the game.

A win over Leinster in Dublin and victory in France against Clermont do not guarantee silverware at the end of the season, but it certainly has restored confidence and belief that this Ulster squad are moving in the right direction.

A win over Northampton Saints at home will ensure the challenge for Euro glory is realistic.

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