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The Ulster verdict on exploiting the Jacques Nienaber defence

By Liam Heagney
Leinster's Jacques Nienaber chats with Ulster boss Dan McFarland (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Dan McFarland has given his verdict on the Springboks’ influence in Ulster’s New Year’s Day win over Leinster, his team’s exploitation of the Jacques Nienaber rush defence and the part that prop Steven Kitshoff had to play in the 22-21 victory.

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Trips to Dublin usually end in failure for the northern province but they managed to get one over on the league leaders at the RDS due to the canny manner in which out-half Billy Burns took advantage of the altered Leinster defensive set-up under the newly recruited Nienaber, the recent Springboks Rugby World Cup-winning head coach.

Leinster have adopted a narrower, blitz-like approach to their defending since the arrival last month of the former South African boss as a senior coach under Leo Cullen.

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Jacques Nienaber on evolution and why he left international rugby

Former Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber has given his first Leinster press conference and at it spoke about how big a role family played in his decision to leave Test rugby. He also spoke about evolution and how it will take a while to get things right at Leinster.

Video Spacer

Jacques Nienaber on evolution and why he left international rugby

Former Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber has given his first Leinster press conference and at it spoke about how big a role family played in his decision to leave Test rugby. He also spoke about evolution and how it will take a while to get things right at Leinster.

They had secured hard-fought wins over Connacht, La Rochelle, Sale and Munster with him on board but this run came to an end when the accuracy of Burns’ kicking exposed them, the visiting out-half providing a booted in-behind assist for a couple of his team’s tries.

“I don’t think it is new knowledge but if you play the kind of defence that Leinster are going to play this year, they are susceptible to kicking, high quality and accurate,” reckoned McFarland in the aftermath of a victory that lifted Ulster to fourth place on the table, six points behind Leinster with half of the campaign’s regulation-season 18 matches now played.

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“Billy is one of the best in the game at that. I genuinely mean that. Definitely, it was a plan but you have got to have variety in that, you have got to be able to do it different ways; you can’t be obvious with it so setting it up and planning it is difficult but those guys, they understand that and they had to execute it well. Billy is really smart and understands where players are going to be and was able to put the ball there, even when it’s not structured.”

Asked to shed more light on the Leinster blitz, McFarland added: “I’m not claiming to give you new information here, teams that have played against South Africa would have done exactly the same thing.

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“Teams that blitz hard off the line are susceptible to attacking kicks but you have to be able to execute then. Ours came off today and, as I say, Billy is one of the best at it.”

While McFarland and co reaped reward versus the Nienaber defence with their kicking, he conceded they struggled at the breakdown with the South African’s tactic in that facet of play.

“In the first half we just didn’t exit properly so we heaped a lot of pressure on ourselves, we had to rely on aspects of our game that we didn’t really want to have to rely on defensively to be able to keep Leinster out.

“Leinster are a really good team and Jacques has brought in that relentlessness at the breakdown, particularly in (poor) weather. You saw it in La Rochelle.

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“They played La Rochelle in conditions like this (at the RDS) and they were ferocious at the breakdown with multiple numbers on the basis that they know you are not going to move the ball wide because it is so dangerous in the conditions in your own half to do that so they pile multiple numbers in.

“We got caught with that, not aware enough, probably not committing enough people to the breakdown. We changed that at halftime, we talked about that and although it is still messy because it becomes like a free-for-all all in that area, we dealt with it much better in that second half but I still think there are areas of our exiting where we need to improve on.”

Switching to the new South African influence within the Ulster ranks, the signing of loosehead Kitshoff, McFarland revealed that the prop took things by the scruff of the neck recently in Belfast after the team was coming off the back of a deflating second-half Champions Cup loss at Bath where their scrum gave up too many penalties.

“He is a double World Cup winner, he lands with a huge amount of credibility full stop. There are two things. He spoke to us at a scrum meeting two weeks ago, he was very specific about what he said and it really hung in the air for the lads. I thought that was excellent.

“But it is his stuff around the park, he carries well, is involved in really good defensive plays, he is always a jackal threat, just moves really well around the park.

“He is not afraid of saying how it is, if things need to change or somebody needs to do something he will point it out. He is a double World Cup winner and he is captain of a URC-winning team. Steven is a top man adding a lot of value.”

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