Best sets bench­mark for bat­tling Ul­ster

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

THE idea of a bench in mod­ern rugby is that the lads sit­ting on it should make a pos­i­tive im­pact on the game when they get their chance. And so it was here. Well, it was for Rory Best any­way. His team were still trail­ing from the half-time score of 12-10 when he came on, and in the pre­ced­ing 10 min­utes Ul­ster had man­aged to lose two lineouts in very good at­tack­ing po­si­tions.

It helped that Cardiff had just lost sec­ond row Seb Davies to the bin for tak­ing out Ross Kane off the ball. That de­ci­sion drove coach John Mul­vi­hill mad.

“Clearly we weren’t happy with the way the game was of­fi­ci­ated and I’m at a stage where I’m sick of it,” he said. “First three games I’ve spo­ken to the ref­er­ees’ boss — he’s told me on email and on my phone that if the game was of­fi­ci­ated prop­erly we would have won the first three games. Now there are big stakes in rugby and peo­ple lose jobs and play­ers lose their roles and it has to be bet­ter.”

Darts are not nec­es­sar­ily Best’s goto dis­ci­pline but that phase cer­tainly calmed down after he came on. And in the endgame, with Cardiff on the charge again and bat­ter­ing away in the Ul­ster 22, it was Best who came up with the steal to make the game safe.

Had they lost, how­ever, Ul­ster could only have blamed them­selves. Their pack as usual was un­der­whelm­ing and a few other bits were dodgy as well. The man of the match award had to go to a home player but while John Cooney was flaw­less off the tee his was no match-win­ning per­for­mance. A few of his box kicks left the lid open and against a will­ing, ad­ven­tur­ous team like Cardiff that was not what he wanted.

When a team are float­ing around mid-ta­ble in their con­fer­ence and on their eighth coach in seven years, you’d be for­given for think­ing they have tar­gets strapped to their back. So if the Ul­ster faith­ful rocked up to the Kingspan on a damp but de­cent af­ter­noon for rugby ex­pect­ing shoot­ing prac­tice for the home boys, they were dis­abused of that idea soon enough.

Yes, Cooney had Ul­ster out of the traps in­side two min­utes with a per­fectly struck penalty but it didn’t knock a feather out of Mul­vi­hill’s side. Soon enough it be­came ap­par­ent they were far more ef­fi­cient than Ul­ster in get­ting wide and gain­ing ground. That Ul­ster set their for­wards pods so close to the break­down did them no favours.

More­over when they went out the back of those pods they were be­ing lev­elled be­hind the gain line by spot tack­les which you’d imag­ine were the fruit of labour spent over laptops in the week lead­ing up to this. Well worth the ef­fort.

So no sur­prise, then, when Matthew Mor­gan got over in the cor­ner after steady, or­gan­ised ap­proach work, fa­cil­i­tated by a pack that looked more phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble than the home eight.

Ul­ster did well to re­gain the lead on 14 min­utes but sig­nif­i­cantly it came from op­por­tunism rather than struc­ture. Mar­cell Coet­zee snaf­fled a loose ball, Stu­art McCloskey car­ried into the Cardiff 22 and while his off­load came off the shin of Kieran Tread­well, the sec­ond row showed lovely skill in gath­er­ing and get­ting over the line for Cooney to add the points and a 10-5 lead.

Given the grunt and struc­ture avail­able to Cardiff it never looked like last­ing. So when the Blues got the chance to maul from close-in to­wards the end of the half they used it to de­posit Kris Dacey safely over the line, which with Jar­rod Evans’s con­ver­sion put the away side 12-10 in front go­ing to the chang­ing room.

The sec­ond half was a drag given the num­ber of stop­pages but the home fans — who had seen Billy Burns stay off after a HIA, which had fol­lowed a leg in­jury — were re­lieved when Cooney kicked them into the lead on 59 min­utes after Cardiff were off­side in their 22. Still no sign of com­fort though. A com­bi­na­tion be­tween Matthew Mor­gan and To­mos Wil­liams looked likely to swing the game back to the Blues in the fi­nal quar­ter but the re­place­ment knocked the ball on.

An­other Cooney strike on 68 min­utes left Cardiff need­ing a try to save them­selves. They looked ca­pa­ble of get­ting it un­til Best stuck his mitts in at ex­actly the right time.

Scor­ers - Ul­ster: Tread­well try; Cooney 3 pens, con; Cardiff Blues: M Mor­gan, Dacey try each; Evans con Tread­well. Ul­ster: M Lowry (J Stock­dale 44); H Speight, J Hume, S McCloskey, L Ludik; B Burns (HIA 36, J McPhillips), J Cooney; A War­wick (E O’Sul­li­van 45), R Her­ring (R Best 53), M Moore (R Kane 47), A O’Con­nor (capt) (I Na­gle 36), K Tread­well, S Reidy, M Coet­zee, J Mur­phy (N Ti­money 73). Cardiff: M Mor­gan; B Scully, H Mil­lard (S Shin­gler 66), R Ley-Lo (G Smith 43), J Har­ries, J Evans, L Wil­liams (capt); R Gill (L Belcher 65), K Dacey, (R Carre 52), S An­drews (D Lewis 52), S Davies (yc 56-66), J Turn­bull, S Manoa (G Earle 56), N Wil­liams (J Down 72), O Robin­son.

Ref­eree: S Berry (South Africa).

Photo: Oliver McVeigh

John Cooney kicks a sec­ond-half penalty dur­ing Ul­ster’s win over Cardiff Blues at Kingspan Sta­dium yes­ter­day.

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