Tag Archives: Edinburgh

Pressure is on Ulster

South African Waltzing Matilda

Stefan Terblanche attacks during Ulster's 22-16 win over Munster in the quarter-finals. (c) Sean Mulligan.

This is completely new territory for Ulster. Their first Heineken Cup semi-final since 1999, when they famously went on to win the tournament. More importantly, Ulster are the clear favourites for tomorrow. It’s a position that they haven’t had to deal with in any of their big games this season so far. How Ulster cope with that tag could have a telling effect on the outcome of the clash with Edinburgh.

Let’s take a closer look at Ulster’s three most important wins this season. All the way back in November, Brian McLaughlin’s side opened their H-Cup campaign with a hard-fought 16-11 win over Clermont in Ravenhill. A loss there would obviously have had disastrous effects. Coming into that game, all the pre-match talk had been about Clermont’s power and pace – Rougerie, Byrne, Bonnaire and Parra. It’s worth remembering that Ulster were viewed slightly differently as a team back then.

While, the pressure was most certainly not off Ulster, no one would have been greatly surprised to see Ulster lose. Despite Clermont winning the set-piece battle and edging the possession/territory stakes, Ulster pulled off a confidence-boosting victory. Their now trademark aggressive defence was led manfully by Stephen Ferris and Ian Humphreys’ try came from an incisive counter-attack following a Clermont knock-on in the Ulster half.

Heineken Cup Q Final April 2012 141

Ulster's defence has been a strength. In this photo, Stephen Ferris is typically bursting up ahead of the defensive line. (c) Alan06.

The next key result was the 41-7 mauling of Leicester, again at Ravenhill. This was another match where Ulster weren’t viewed as definite favourites. The Tigers were still pushing hard for a quarter-final spot at that stage. Once again, Ulster were second-best at the set piece, and were narrowly shaded in terms of territory and possession, yet they still managed to tear the Tigers apart.  As with the Clermont game, Ulster’s defence shut down a Leicester side who are easily the top try-scorers in the Premiership. We’ll come back to Ulster’s attacking performance that day.

So, to the quarter-final win in Thomond Park. It’s fair to say that Munster were the narrow favourites for the majority of fans and bookies. The home side had a whooping 72% possession and 79% territory, but Ulster again came out on top. While Munster’s attacking play was very limited, it’s hard to emphasize Ulster’s phenomenal defensive effort enough. Their try, from inside their own half, was a mixture of Craig Gilroy’s ability with ball in hand and Munster’s unacceptably poor tackling.

The major point is that Ulster’s three biggest wins of the season came in matches where they were slight underdogs and didn’t expect to dominate possession (nor did they). Against Edinburgh tomorrow, both of these aspects will be reversed. Encouragingly, Ulster have strong leaders in the likes of Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best and John Afoa. Still, it will be intriguing to see how McLaughlin and his charges handle the expectation. This won’t be a game where the opposition will have long spells of possession and Ulster can simply batter them with their aggressive defence.

Ulster's lineout copy

Muller and his pack will expect to provide quality possession to Pienaar at 9. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

We go back to that glorious win over Leicester for the attacking template that Ulster should look to use. The first try that day was sheer excellence. It was kick-started inside Ulster’s half as two passes put Wannenburg in space out wide on the right. The South African’s offload was followed by Trimble’s before the move was slightly halted. Following a few patient phases, Ferris’ burst put Ulster back on the front foot and Trimble finished in the corner.

That’s Ulster at their best. One or two direct boshes in tight (Trimble, Tuohy, Muller etc. run at Laidlaw!) followed swiftly by long passes into a wide channel. As pointed on Whiff of Cordite, Ulster’s 9-10-12 axis are all lovely passers of the ball, and that doesn’t change with the selection of Paddy Jackson at 10. As the lads highlight, that Gilroy try vs. Munster is another fine example. Trimble up the middle, then two long passes (Humphreys, that’s an absolute beauty!) to the wide channel. While the 21-year-old isn’t going to finish like that every time, it still allows Ulster to play to their strengths.

Ulster’s pack looks slightly stronger than Edinburgh’s, although with John Afoa missing, Edinburgh will expect to get on top in the scrum. Even without Chris Henry, Ulster’s forwards should be able to provide Pienaar and Jackson with a steady share of quality possession. If Ulster can manage the added pressure of favouritism, retain their disruptive defensive style and unleash their most effective attacking patterns then they’re a banker to get to the Heineken Cup final. Once there, they will return to the role of underdogs against Clermont or Leinster. As we’ve seen before, that’s a position which suits them.


Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Sean Mulligan, Alan06.

Prime Opportunity For Cave


Cave (2nd from top) in action during Ulster's quarter-final win over Munster. (c) Sean Mulligan.

In the first ever post here on The Touchline all the way back in November of last year, I suggested Darren Cave as a potential replacement for the then-injured Brian O’Driscoll. Cave’s pre-Six Nations form this season demonstrated that the 25-year-old has the ability to eventually do so. Unfortunately, a foot injury sustained in January prevented any possible international inclusion. Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh presents a prime chance for Cave to put himself back in contention.

The Holywood man is back in action now and has played the full 80 minutes of Ulster’s last three games, including the quarter-final win over Munster. Like the rest of Ulster’s backline, he had a quiet game in terms of attack as Munster dominated possession that day. In defence he was as solid as ever, making all 12 of his tackles. It’s very rare to see Cave miss a hit. His defensive positioning at outside centre, an extremely difficult channel to defend in, is always good.

Some Irish fans will have reservations about Cave due to the fact that he is often unglamorous in attack. While Keith Earls, and Brian O’Driscoll is his pomp, can create line breaks from seemingly nothing, Cave is a more direct runner. For Ulster, Paddy Wallace at 12 gets the best from Cave with his creative skills. Wallace’s subtle ability to feed ball-carriers running smart lines is greatly underrated. If Cave is to excel against Edinburgh, Wallace’s fitness will be crucial and thankfully it now looks likely that he will play.


Cave (background) is at his best when Wallace (headband) plays inside him. (c) Liam Coughlan.

At 6’0″ and close to 100kg, Cave is ideally built for his position. He may lack the top-end pace of a world-class 13 but he is very powerful in the contact area. Look back to Ulster’s mauling of Leicester in January, perhaps their most complete performance of the season so far. Cave only carried 5 times that day, but made 25 metres gain in total, beating 2 defenders and creating a clean line-break.

That’s a typical Cave stat sheet. He’ll rarely beat a defence with a lightning fast side-step, but he will repeatedly punch holes. His support play is also a real strength (as illustrated below). I’m not suggesting that Cave is anywhere near his level, but a decent comparison would be with New Zealand’s Conrad Smith. The Hurricanes captain is not particularly flash, but his defensive game is world-class. In attack, he rarely beats someone with jaw-dropping footwork and pace, but his contributions are vital. Quietly and superbly efficient.

Edinburgh’s likely centre partnership on Saturday is Scotland internationals Matt Scott and Nick de Luca. Cave and Wallace should be confident of giving Ulster a clear advantage in midfield. 28-year-old De Luca has 33 caps for his country but has largely failed to excel. He seems to carry a reputation as a creative influence, but the outside centre has never shown consistent evidence of it at the top level. At PRO12 level, he’s a decent provider for Tim Visser.

Inside him, Scott is still only 21. He made his Scotland debut off the bench against Ireland in this year’s Six Nations, looking fairly nervous as he over-ran a couple of promising offloads. On the four occasions De Luca and Scott have played together in the Heineken Cup this season, they have only manufactured a single line-break between them. Their threat is minimal compared to what, for example, Leinster face in the other Heineken Cup semi-final. Cave should be confident of shutting them down.

One argument that might be created against Cave’s inclusion at international level is that he has never bossed a top-level game. His confidence has grown this year; his performance in that mauling of the Tigers being one example. Now that Ulster have returned to the business end of the Heineken Cup, it’s time for Cave to dominate a game. Saturday is a perfect opportunity for him to do so.


Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan, Sean Mulligan.

Munster’s Second String Impress

Match Report – RaboDirect PRO12 

Munster 34-17 Edinburgh

26th November @ Thomond Park

Keatley impressed at Thomond Park. Photo via MD+D

Munster put in an impressive performance to claim a bonus point win against Edinburgh in an entertaining RaboDirect PRO12 clash. Tony McGahan was rewarded for putting faith in some of younger members of his squad. The more experienced second-string players also gave the Australian coach something to think about with their good showing at Thomond Park. While Edinburgh made a game of it, Munster always looked the more likely winners here.

Indeed, it was a flying start from Munster. After some strong carries from hard-working Mick O’Driscoll and Denis Fogarty, outhalf Ian Keatley switched play to the blindside. Denis Hurley broke a tackle and drew the last defender to put Danny Barnes over for a 3rd minute try. Keatley was on target with the conversion. With Munster retaining possession well for the next few minutes,  it looked as though they could go on to build a strong lead.

However, an attempted Keatley grubber went straight into the hands of Edinburgh’s Jack Gilding. The prop immediately moved the ball to backrow Netani Telai whose offload to Phil Godman allowed the outhalf to scamper over in the corner. The Edinburgh No. 10 was well off target with his conversion attempt in windy conditions. It was Keatley who dealt with the wind better for the remainder of the first half as he converted two penalties. Meanwhile, Godman and replacement centre Harry Leonard were badly off target with their penalty efforts for Edinburgh.

The 13-5 lead at half-time didn’t truly reflect the level of Munster’s dominance in the first half. They enjoyed good territorial advantage but were failing to convert try-scoring opportunities. Will Chambers was guilty on one occasion as he ignored the overlap outside and went himself. No. 8 Paddy Butler was unlucky to knock on as he attempted to gather and dive over after the ball had squeezed out of a scrum just in front of the Edinburgh try line.

Edinburgh were first on the scoreboard in the second-half when they swiftly moved the ball through the hands to winger Tom Brown on the left-hand touchline. It looked like Munster debutant Luke O’Dea had made a fantastic try-saving tackle on Brown, but the Edinburgh wide man stretched out to touch down. Again, Godman was unsuccessful with his effort from the tee. With their lead closed to 3 points at 13-10, Munster were snapped back into action by Brown’s try.

Simon Zebo made a scintillating break out on the left and from the ensuing scrum, it all started to fall apart for Edinburgh. The Munster scrum turned up the heat magnificently and Gilding was sent to the bin. Loosehead Kyle Traynor was hot on his heels as referee Neil Paterson was forced to reach for another yellow card. Munster then left Paterson with no option but to award a well-deserved penalty try as they shunted Edinburgh back once again. Keatley added the extras to leave Munster with a 20-10 lead.

Munster extended the lead soon after as they used their numerical advantage to create a try for Zebo. It was Chambers who was creator this time as his offload allowed Zebo to dive over for a score that his performance had earned. Once again, Keatley was on target with his conversion. It was an admirable kicking performance from the ex-Connacht outhalf as he adapted well to the blustery conditions.

Restored to 15 men, Edinburgh made a valiant attempt to reel Munster in. Replacement outhalf Greig Laidlaw scooted through a gap in the defence as Munster briefly lost focus. The substitute converted his own try to leave Edinburgh trailing by 10 points, 27-17. But it was Munster who had the last say when Keatley put an intelligent grubber through for O’Dea to dot down on his debut. Keatley increased his personal points haul to 14 with the conversion.

The comfortable 34-17 lead allowed McGahan to empty his bench and give the likes of John Ryan, Ian Nagle and Scott Deasy a few minutes of game time. He will have been impressed with the performances of his younger players. Zebo, O’Dea, Tommy O’Donnell and Stephen Archer all showed up well. More experienced players like Tomas O’Leary, Mick O’Driscoll and particularly Donnacha O’Callaghan led the side well. Munster travel to Wales to take on the Ospreys next Saturday, where these players will hope to impress again.

Photo courtesy:  M+MD