Sunday, 19 October 2014

3 Star Tigers Take Ulster Scalp

A breath taking 20 minutes which saw Tigers score three tries was just enough to seal a crucial 25-18 European win against Ulster at Welford Road.

Tigers coped with losing talisman Manu Tuilagi on 14 minutes brilliantly by scoring tries from Owen Williams, Graham Kitchener and Freddie Burns in the next 20 minutes whilst Ulster crumbled from a solid 3-0 lead to trail 19-3 at the break.

And it could have been more had Tigers not started the day with the indifferent Burns attempting the kicks to the posts.

Ulster opened the scoring with a Paddy Jackson penalty on 8 minutes after Tigers had infringed at the ruck, and Tigers were lucky that the red haired Irishman was off target with an earlier kick or it could have been 6-0 down in almost as many minutes.

Tigers responded immediately as Blaine Scully leaped like a salmon to claim Burns' restart and power into the heart of the Ulster defence.  Eventually scragged down Ulster's last man looked to have deliberately knocked on in the following move but referee Poite was unmoved, not the only time Ulster were lucky to escape censure from the Frenchman.

Ben Youngs wasted two good opportunities in the 22 through a chip to no one and a floated pass that was intercepted but Tigers were not to be denied.  Julian Salvi broke down the right hand side before play was switched to Tuilagi rampaging down the left, drawing a penalty from Ulster on the 5m line; Manu re-injured his groin in the move though and was swiftly withdrawn as Tigers kicked for the corner.

From the lineout Tigers drove and were denied, the pack heaved again and were denied, before Owen Williams, warming to his role as a crash ball centre, took the ball at pace and with intent.  The Welshman slammed into three Ulster bodies and fought to successfully ground the ball.

There was no mistake with the conversion but Burns was off target with a later penalty skewing it badly wide right.  Again Ulster rode their luck with Mr Poite as Tommy Bowe's ugly challenge on Miles Benjamin in the air was punished with only a penalty.

Ulster challenged again but were unable to convert any possession to points; Tigers slowly won the kicking battle to gain good territory in the Ulster 22.  The conservative kicking strategy was vindicated when Youngs picked off an innocuous pass from the base of an Ulster maul setting Graham Kitchener up for the second try before the half hour mark.

Tigers extended the lead just 5 minutes later when Burns, now relieved of the goal kicking duties, dummied his way over bamboozaling four Ulster defenders in the process.  

Ulster were down to 14 men at this point following a yellow card to Craig Gilroy for yet another tackle on the man in the air.  Ulster were very fortunate that referee Poite did not produce a red card.  With these two incidents and the one last year against Saracens you have to ask is this a deliberate tactic from Ulster designed to intimidate opposition players?

Tigers looked to have taken full advantage from the extra man and the wave of momentum when Leonardo Ghiraldini twisted, worked, wrestled and squirmed his way over in the Crumbie corner on the stroke of half time but he was correctly denied by the TV ref; Ben Youngs foot just barely grazing the line before the final pass was completed.

Tigers won the lineout but were unable to finish the job off, forgetting how effective running hard, straight and flat to the gainline had been for Owen Williams' try instead we went wide and deep attempting to take advantage of the missing winger.  It did not work.

With the break for half time the momentum Tigers had built was lost and never to be regained.  The second half was almost all Ulsters.  The kicking game that was so effective in the first half was not so much over done as done much much worse.  Playing territory and forcing another mistake was a good strategy but badly employed.

For me much of the blame must go to Burns.  His kicking for territory was poor and when he did successfully earn us possession in their half he flippantly wasted it with his selfish and immature chips to nowhere and no one.  It was a real slap in the face when this alleged England contender was replaced by scrum half David Mele to see out the match.

But Tigers did start the half well extending their lead to 22-3 when Owen Williams converted a straight forward scrum penalty.  Ulster were a totally different team in the second half running the ball with vigour and verve, causing us all sorts of problems to our defence.  First they cut the gap with a penalty following Tigers collapsing an attacking maul.

Then they scored the try of the day, the first of two outstanding efforts; Ulster won 30 yards from a kicking duel between the back threes ending with a lineout on half way.  Sweeping a rare clean catching off the top they went through the hands, taking advantage of Miles Benjamin's poor decision to step in they raced into the 22 and smart running lines and sharp passing helped them evade the Tigers scramble defence for the try.

The score rattled Tigers.  They looked panicked.  Trying random 50m drop goals and retreating further into our shell.  A scrum penalty successfully converted by Williams helped calm the nerves, and of course eventually was the match winning score.

Ulster's second score had two parts, first was the delicious inside ball to British Lion Tommy Bowe who scythed his way forward, only stopped by a crunching Blaine Scully tackle.  Second was the finish by Franco van der Merwe, a huge swinging dummy was bought by all before the lumbering 6'6" beast dove over the ruck like an NFL running back diving over a pile of bodies.  In this game of course you've got to get back to ground the ball and the South African just about did despite the attentions of Ben Youngs.

Crucially Paddy Jackson was unsuccessful from the simple conversion.  Did the young man get a case of the yips and skew his kick you wonder?  No, the growing force of Jamie Gibson was sharp on the uptake and using all of his 6'5" frame, all of his wingspan and all of his vertical leap he managed to charge down the conversion!  I can't remember ever seeing that in a top level game before.

That left the gap at 7 points and Tigers in a bit of a quandary when a chance for 3 points came.  Are we battling with Ulster or Toulon in this group?  Do we take 3 points and deny Ulster the losing bonus, or are we challenging Toulon, do we go for the try and damn the risk of Ulster's point or possible draw?

We went for the ambitious.  We went for the try.  We went for Toulon.

We messed it up.  Twice.  Then again sort of a third time.  Well, you can't fault the ambition.   First line out was taken cleanly and the maul set up, but Ulster resisted and emboldened by Tigers spurning the kick infringed again.  This time we tried a trick line out.  Why?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Ulster cleared but only to the 22.  We tried another trick line out.  Why?  According to ESPN's stats these were 2 of only 3 line outs we lost all game, the other was a not straight call.

Ulster tried for the draw but Tigers defence was stout and held out.  Before the match I'd have taken a win, any win, 2 weeks ago I'd probably have taken a close defeat; but today and last night I'm gutted we didn't kill them off with the 4th try.

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