WHEN A HARD-NOSED Kiwi like Mark Anscombe has a slight quiver in his voice and real pain in his eyes you know it’s been a gut wrenching evening.
In recent weeks Ulster’s head coach has emerged from the dressing room still bristling over this decision or that.
Last night though, after his Ulster side had been put through an emotional and physical wringer again, he initially found it difficult to come up with anything but the most concise of sentences.
“We had our chances and we didn’t take them.” Though the Aucklander would soon find the will to speak at more length.
“Sometimes when we build pressure and create opportunities we’re our own worst enemy, putting the pressure back on ourselves and trying to force it rather than keeping that composure.”
The disparity between chances created and converted carries on through to the macro level too. Last night’s missed try-scoring opportunities are simply one part of the overall frustration within the province. For with every step they take towards a trophy, it becomes more apparent how far away it is.
‘The extra step’
“We had control of that game for nearly 70 minutes and didn’t finish it off. It’s the same story repeating itself. We’ve got to look at why we keep doing it,” snarled the bad cop of Anscombe before the retiring good cop Johann Muller backed up his point.
“We’ve put ourselves in those positions now for four years in a row and still there’s nothing in the cabinet,” lamented the outgoing captain.
“This year – especially this year – we haven’t had good luck. Today wasn’t one of those days, today we were beaten by a better side at the end.”
That Leinster were better was down to not only home advantage, but a deep-rooted belief built up over time that they are bound to finish strong. So even when they had failed to create a clear scoring chance before the hour, they would move from 0 – 9 to 13- 9 in the space of 16 minutes. It was an unforgiving change up in gear for an Ulster side who had set the pace of the game up until that point.
“The difference between ending second and ending first, is that extra step,” says Muller in praise of the reigning champions, an experienced and all too familiar foe who it seems have stalked his years in Ireland.
“Obviously a side like Leinster who have won plenty of trophies in the past five or six years, they know what it takes to get to the extra step. And, whenever we get to the point where we’re able to take the extra step, after that it will happen so much easier and so much more naturally.
“Leinster have been in this situation how many times in the past five years? And we’ve been four times. It makes a difference when you know you have to push your body that extra step, the extra five yards you’re not used to.
“They obviously know what it takes, because it does take something special to win trophies, it doesn’t just happen because you’re a nice bunch of guys and you enjoy the game. You’ve got to take that extra step and we don’t know yet.”
Ulster are looking to life after Muller (plus John Afoa and Tom Court) and are clinging to the hope that a killer instinct will soon grow and spread throughout their team. They have every reason to believe that it will; especially if they look at the success arc of Munster in the early years of this century, and Leinster who followed up and raised the benchmark even further.
Is it too far now for Ulster to stretch?