WE WERE TREATED to a brief, but telling, insight into Ulster’s state of mind just minutes before kick-off in their decisive Heineken Cup Pool 5 clash at Welford Road on Saturday.
Sky Sports’ camera shoved its way to the door of the changing room as Mark Anscombe’s men made their final preparations and captain Johann Muller was overheard giving his closing message to the Ulster team: “Nice and cool. Nice and cool. Nice and cool, ok?”
While such an approach is common in professional rugby, the northern province could have been forgiven for bursting out of the sheds, frothing at the mouth and loudly proclaiming that they were going to leave their mark on Leicester’s home ground. The latter is exactly what Ulster did, but they achieved it by being icy cool in the implementation of their game plan.
If any team can be described as ‘pissing ice cubes,’ then it is Anscombe’s side.
One of the notable strengths of this Ulster team is their exemplary kicking game, and not just from the tee. Out of hand, Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson are superb, while Jared Payne also chips in with nice touches from the back. At Welford Road, the superiority of Ulster’s kicking was one of the most decisive factors in the game.
The 2012 Heineken Cup finalists have a perfectly-functioning exit strategy [the manner in which they kick out of their defensive zone of the pitch]. Anscombe’s side are rarely caught out in this area, and the height Pienaar and Jackson get on their kicks mean they are very often highly-contestable in the air.
When Pienaar looks to box kick for Ulster, he invariably does so without making the situation panicked in any way. That is, in part, down to the South African’s remarkable composure, but his teammates deserve plenty of credit too.
In the shot above, you can see Pienaar preparing to clear the ball out of Ulster’s 22 with a box kick. Crucially, there are three Ulster forwards providing a screen for him to do so. Every team in the world, both professional and amateur, uses this mini-tactic but Ulster are consistent in the quality of their security for Pienaar.
Technically, the players circled above are in illegal positions, but no referee will penalise them unless they actively hold or impede defenders. It buys Pienaar an extra half-metre of space and half-second of time to get the distance and height he wants on his kick.
In great contrast, Leicester were very reliant on out-half Toby Flood to provide the clearing kicks when they were under pressure. Crucially, they failed to provide the England international with any real semblance of shelter.
The video below highlights the difference between the sides.
Pienaar kicks out of Ulster’s half behind that screen, getting incredible hang-time on the box. That allows Chris Henry to lead the chase and put the Tigers under instant pressure on the back foot. The home team immediately look to kick clear through Flood, but their organisation is very poor.
The Toulouse-bound playmaker is far too flat, as Stuart Barnes highlighted in commentary during the game. Looking in front of him, you can also see that there are no Tigers players interfering with Ulster’s blockdown-seeking defenders. Flood is under all sorts of pressure and hacks the ball down field.
It’s all far too rushed and panicked from the Tigers, in stark contrast to the mental coolness Ulster displayed when exiting their ‘red zone’. It’s notable that Pienaar is the man to clatter into Flood in the example above too, as he clearly had a close eye on the out-half’s kicking style.
The clip above was the first real warning shot that Ulster sent in the Tigers’ direction as regards to blocking down kicks. In the 50th minute, Luke Marshall got close to another one, as demonstrated below.
Then in the 56th minute, Pienaar got very, very near in a situation that was remarkably similar to the try that followed just three minutes later. You can see below that it’s the scrum-half who again comes forward untouched to attempt the blockdown.
While we mentioned above that screening players cannot impede defenders, there simply isn’t enough protection for Flood in this situation. He is focusing on getting maximal distance from his touch-finder, but none of his Tigers teammates are giving him that extra split-second to do so.
What’s also notable is that the pass from Ben Youngs, who had a poor game, is very low. That forces Flood to re-adjust and you can see from the shot below that his clearing kick has a very low trajectory.
The ball, which is merely a blur, is circled as it just clears Pienaar’s reach, while the arrow demonstrates a more suitable trajectory for a kick under such pressure. Ulster’s scrum-half had sniffed out where his try was going to come from and he pounced in the 59th minute.
It’s worth watching the entire clip below, as it demonstrates just how far out Pienaar came from in search of the block. He makes the pass to Jackson, who puts up a brilliantly accurate garryowen, and as Youngs gets set to pass, Pienaar still isn’t back in shot.
Once the camera pans out, we see the South African haring forward, straining to get at Flood. He strides past the ruck area unimpeded and makes a wonderful block to score.
The try shows Pienaar’s intelligence in recognising the opportunity Leicester were presenting to Ulster, his work-rate in getting into that position and superb technique to make the blockdown. The video below gives us a better view of the incident, and it’s worth noting how Pienaar leaves it until very late to get his arms up.
It’s textbook stuff technically from the 29-year-old, waiting until the last moment to raise his arms, thereby ensuring that Flood’s peripheral vision is not given a hint to get a larger release angle on his kick. Again, the Tigers’ out-half kicks at a low trajectory and Pienaar does the business.
Pienaar deserves all the plaudits he has been getting for such a calm, clinical individual display but this win was also about the magnificent team effort. Ulster really didn’t do a lot with ball in hand over the course of the 80 minutes, producing just a single line-break through Luke Marshall.
Pienaar’s sublime place kicking, as relaxed and consistent as his personality, meant that wasn’t an issue and, on the flip side, Ulster’s defensive effort was excellent. They sent ‘shooters’ up in midfield all evening and utterly shut down Leicester’s attempts to move the ball wide.
In the animation above, taken during phase play, you can see Jackson and Pienaar rushing up ahead of the defence in that outside centre channel, acting as the ‘shooters’ [who are sent up ahead of the rest of the defence]. We highlighted Leinster using similar tactics against Castres the weekend before, but they did not back up the rush with strong tackles.
Jackson makes his hit in the clip above, something he did incredibly well at Welford Road. The 22-year-old completed 15 strong tackles in another classy performance. The intention, however, is not to pick out individuals, as this defensive effort was carried out by the entire Ulster selection.
Even in the dying minutes, Anscombe’s men strained to send shooters up out of the line to shut Leicester down, as we see below from Chris Henry in the 83rd minute.
Incidentally, Henry made 20 tackles at Welford Road as well as featuring strongly on the ball in attack. A timely demonstration of his talents.
Maul interventions in crucial zones
For an area in which Ulster were battered by Munster just a few short weeks ago, they turned up the quality to a high degree on Saturday. Leicester attempted to maul the ball over the province’s line at two crucial times in the game, but Anscombe’s men were more than up to the task.
The first occasion came in the immediate aftermath of a wonderful linebreak from Graham Kitchener and with the momentum fully in Leicester’s favour. Already in a 6-3 lead in the 21st minute, a try would have given the Tigers a strong platform from which to build.
Some inspirational work from the beastly Nick Williams put a swift end to those plans.
You can see in the video above that the New Zealander slams into the maul with incredible power and proceeds to muscle his way onto the ball. Kitchener should have done better to prevent Williams from coming through the middle, but it’s simply remarkable strength from the No. 8 to turn possession over at a vital time.
There was a similar repelling of the Leicester maul in the 75th minute, with the Tigers desperately searching for a winning try. This time it was more of a pack effort as Ulster timed their counter-drive to perfection and almost shunted the Tigers’ pack into touch.
It’s tempting to go for the ‘sack’ in these situations, dragging the line-out catcher to the ground as he lands. However, Ulster backed their power and what we see above is a superbly-timed counter-drive. John Afoa and Tom Court take up their positions as Steve Mafi is in the air, readying themselves as a team normally would at an attacking maul.
This may not be as glamorous as the long-range kicks Ruan Pienaar fired over, but these actions were just as crucial in ensuring that Ulster came away from Welford Road with the four points that secured their spot as top seeds for the quarter finals.
Six from six in one of the more testing pools, with the meanest defence in the competition, Ulster have marked out their candidacy to claim this season’s Heineken Cup. Meeting Saracens at Ravenhill is a huge advantage, and Anscombe’s men look far better equipped to deal with the Premiership side’s pace and power this year.
If they can overcome that hurdle, a semi-final in Ireland awaits against the winners of Clermont and Leicester’s quarter-final, and it would be foolish to discount the northern province. They possess the sharpest kicking game in Europe and that superbly miserly defence. While they do appear to be lacking in line-breaking ability, that deficiency can be overcome and improved in the coming months.
Anscombe’s men move on after another high-class, perfectly executed win on Saturday. If Ulster are to advance further, it’ll be ‘nice and cool’ again. Very little flusters Pienaar and co.
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