The Irish Times
Ravenhill rocks Ulster maul Toulouse
Early Christmas present for Ravenhill as Kiss’s side deliver five-star performance
Wow. Ulster’s performance represented a bucket list of aspirations perfectly executed for the most part. There was a training-ground precision and brio that elevated this Champions Cup clash to the pantheon of great nights in Belfast.
The quality of their rugby, the intelligence, the breadth, the vision and the execution were a joy to behold, while the commitment and structure in defence ensured that Toulouse were chaperoned into cluttered corridors. Ulster doled out a rugby lesson.
The French cub may reflect on losing Maxime Medard before the game and Louis Picamoles after 16 minutes but ahead of next week’s return match in France, they’ll have to quickly absorb how they were out-thought and outfought.
Singling out any Ulster player would be unfair. This was a perfect marriage of individual and collective excellence. Ulster’s goal-line defence towards the end of the game exemplified their attitude.
It wasn’t perfect but boy was it high-calibre. A word for Paddy Jackson who marshalled the side brilliantly, giving his team an irresistible rhythm but there wasn’t a player who won’t look forward to the video review.
It was a remarkable opening half of rugby from Ulster, who stretched their opponents to breaking point on several occasions.
They might have scored more than two tries but there was much to admire in the accuracy of their patterns as they varied the point of attack with forwards taking the ball on the gainline and running hard at inside shoulders and the backs looking to get outside the Toulouse defence.
Jackson demonstrated that he’s not simply a distributor. Carrying the ball in two hands, he bamboozled would-be tacklers, wriggling through gaps on a couple of occasions that got his side in behind the initial line of defence.
Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall were more muscular in their carries, while Craig Gilroy’s footwork is as good as there is in Irish rugby.
Ulster’s analysis on defence was pitch perfect, their line speed aggressive, and if they fell off the odd tackle, other players compensated in making intelligent reads. Toulouse’s most effective gambit in the half was the rolling maul, a tactic that managed to accrue serious yardage on three occasions, one of which led to a penalty opportunity.
Toby Flood missed two kickable penalties at a time they would have given the visitors a foothold. Ulster weren’t so profligate. Their first try on 21 minutes followed on from electing to kick a penalty to touch inside the Toulouse 22.
Robbie Diack’s sumptuous offload allowed Nick Williams to power over the line. Jackson converted kicked a penalty and then with both sides down a player for sin bin offences, Ulster got a second try, one minute from the interval.
Andrew Trimble raced through a yawning gap on the halfway line, chipped Arthur Bonneval and collected the ball, before riding a tackle to plunge over. Yacouba Camara became the third player to receive a yellow card for tripping Ruan Pienaar at the very start of the try-scoring move.
If Ulster were chuffed by their 17-0 half-time lead, their night was about to go interstellar. Vincent Clerc made a brilliant try-saving intervention when slapping the ball out of Gilroy’s hands two minutes into the second half after another gorgeous free-flowing move. It was a brief respite.
Gilroy’s footwork took him past a couple of tacklers in midfield, Trimble was held up in one corner but then the home side rumbled to inches from the Toulouse line. Pienaar’s wonderful vision was matched by the execution, his cross-kick landing in Marshall’s breadbasket and the centre scampered over. Jackson’s conversion was a formality and, at 24-0, Ulster scented a bonus point.
It arrived on 53 minutes, a superb individual effort from McCloskey as he spotted a mismatch initially to glide around the first defender and step inside the last one. Jackson’s conversion took the home side out to a 31-0 lead.
Ulster were worth every point and they embellished the evening with a fifth try from Chris Henry. It came from a beautifully constructed rolling maul, Toulouse’s strong point on the night, a final ignominy for the French.
It was a stunning night for Ulster at a time when Irish provincial rugby was crying out for some positivity.