A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace
Cardiff’s surprise win at Edinburgh last weekend was as good for Ulster as their Ravenhill bonus win against Zebre. Conference B in the Pro14 is by far the more interesting, with a fantastic close contest for playoff places, behind run away leaders Leinster.
Scarlets are sitting fifth but only five points adrift of second place Benetton and the Welsh side has a much easier run in. Sandwiched between them are Edinburgh and Ulster, with the Scots away to the Italians this Saturday -in a huge crunch game for both sides.
Players are often advised to play one week to the next and not focus too much on two and three games ahead. I was always the opposite. I enjoyed the mental exercise of working through the maths and predicting the outcome of other fixtures and what those results might mean for my Club. If any of Ulster’s current crop are doing the same exercise today, they will know that March is the month that will make or break their season.
Home and away with very winnable games in the Pro14, followed by the near impossible challenge of putting Leinster to the sword in a Dublin European quarter-final. Any two out of three will mean a positive end of season.
In Belfast last weekend much more of Ulster’s broader playing pool was on show. We are also getting to see more of who Dan McFarland will be placing his confidence in the seasons to come. Robert Baloucoune is showing more and more ability in every game he plays, and fellow winger Rob Lyttle played with the confidence of someone who starts every week.
Lyttle has just signed a new contrast along with reserve scrum half Dave Shanahan, prop Ross Kane and Alan O’Connor, who I had a sneaking suspicion might have been tempted away from Ulster at the end of this season. Not least with the announcement that Brumbies lock Sam Carter will be joining in the Autumn.
Ulster fans often talk of being “given” players who haven’t made it at Leinster or another province. And it was only a matter of time before one of those became a source of real regret in Dublin -and it’s increasingly looking like Eric O’Sullivan may well become that player. The idea that McGrath could soon be sharing the load with him in Belfast will cause real joy in Belfast and some serious dismay in Dublin.
It’s not positive for all though, the selection of Pete Nelson at flyhalf, ahead of Jonny McPhillips, strongly suggests McPhillips might be playing elsewhere next season. McPhillips did a great job taking over from Christian Lealiifano mid-season last year and was central to steering Ulster back into Champions Cup rugby. But for whatever reason he has hardly featured under McFarland and he’s starting to look like persona no grata.
This weekend I expect to see a few returnees from Ireland duty get game time in Newport. And for me some involvement of the likes of John Cooney, Rory Best, Iain Henderson or Jordi Murphy will tip the balance in Ulster’s favour. Don’t expect Jacob Stockdale to feature though, he’s just too good and too important for Ireland these days. His natural ability to score important tries -often from nothing -is a gift from above.
Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.
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