They were already going to be the underdogs no matter how they beat Edinburgh in the Guinness PRO14 semi-final at Murrayfield, but given the way they did do it Dan McFarland’s team should be even less burdened by expectation in Saturday’s final at Aviva Stadium.
While there was a bit of deja vu about the 13-3 Leinster win over Munster on Friday, a sameness which appears to have prompted some unsheathing of the knives of those critics not crazy about the losing team’s South African coach Johann van Graan, the Ulster win over Edinburgh was a cracker that reached a dramatic conclusion.
Down 12 points at two separate junctures of the second half, and making so many mistakes that winning seemed nothing more than an elusive pipe-dream, Ulster came back from the dead to win 22-19 with a pressure penalty kick from replacement flyhalf Ian Madigan with the last act of the game. It was a cruel way for Edinburgh to bow out of their first PRO14 final as they looked like they were bossing the game halfway through the second half, but for Ulster it was a lifeline and an opportunity to go for broke in the final.
“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.”
He’s right about that. Ulster were quite poor for long periods of the game, with any promising build-ups on attack invariably being thwarted by handling errors. But that’s the point – they were poor and they won, and they were pretty impressive once they did have the momentum with them in the last quarter.
Having been pretty unspectacular in the two league games they played after coming back from the coronavirus intervention, it could possibly be argued that Ulster have finally found some form. And winning a game like the one at Murrayfield, where you are up against it and come back to win against the odds, always provides a jolt of confidence for those who prevail.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 5, 2020
They know they will be up against it at Aviva, but then they were up against it going to Edinburgh given the historical narrative that has developed around play-off games in PRO14 – unless you are Scarlets, you don’t win an away semi-final! Well, Ulster have changed that, and having overcome the odds once they will give themselves a chance of doing it again.
For both losers this weekend it would be easy to apportion individual blame, but neither of the vanquished coaches were eager to do that.
JJ Hanrahan has been so good with the boot this season that he finished the league phase of the competition with a 90 percent success rate at posts for Munster, yet in the semi-final he missed two relatively easy kicks that, had they been successful, could have had a massive change on 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.”
As disconsolate as Hanrahan was after the final whistle in Dublin so was Edinburgh’s reserve hooker Mike Willemse after the Murrayfield game. It was Willemse’s knock down of the ball as Ulster launched one final attack with just over a minute to go that gave away the penalty that Madigan kicked to break the home team’s hearts.
For coach Richard Cockerill, however, it wasn’t individual error that was to blame, he just felt the team wasn’t good enough and 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.”
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