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THREE AND QUEASY FOR EMBRA



I've been away for a few weeks.  I'm beginning to wonder whether coming back was such a good move.

  

At times like these, one turns to the old certainties.  In the case of this column, that means baseball legend Yogi Berra, who once said: “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”  As ever, that seems to get to the core of the Gunners’ current malaise.  We are getting considerably less than 140% performances at present.

 

Over the years, it’s been said many times in this column– and in a pile of other places too – that if you win your home games and half of your away games, whether in the Magners or the Heineken, then you’ll be there or thereabouts at the business end of the season. 

 

So it’s fair to say that the Gunners’ current 0-3 record is probably not championship-winning form.  They haven’t even managed the minimum acceptable return – a losing bonus point – in two of their three defeats so far this term.  The best I can say is that at least they haven’t – yet – managed to get roundly stuffed by the league’s four poorest teams, as they did at the end of last season.  But I think you’ll agree that that is pretty cold comfort.

 

The close season saw the exit from the club of a fair bit of battle hardened experience as well as a pile of ballast up front, notably in the person of ‘Big’ Jim Hamilton.  Both of these were not exactly strengths of the Gunners’ squad in any case.  And it is on nights like Friday at Ravenhill - or even home slug-fests against a weakened Munster side last week - that these qualities come to the fore. 

 

Confidence and belief seem at a low ebb in the squad anyway, which is one reason for the unacceptably high error count.  But the blend in the side is not right and the leadership is just not there.  Coach Moffat did the right thing by naming his side for Friday’s match late by Embra standards, but the XV that took to the field was not radically different from the previous two defeats.  One feels that the players do not yet believe that every place in the side is up for grabs.  That needs to change.

 

There are opportunities for some of the young guys to make a big impact in the problem areas on the park.  If they are hungry enough, that is.  Because the old codgers are just not delivering at the moment

 

Ever since he marked his first appearance for Edinburgh – away to Connacht – by being sin-binned, I have been a big fan of Steve ‘Stevie’ Turnbull.  One feels that the coaching staff must look at giving him a run in the boilerhouse, while Fraser McKenzie should also be looking to push for a starting place.  Equally, a number of the heftier young back rows should be looking at becoming the capital’s answer to Stephen Ferris at Ulster, because there is currently a vacancy for that role in the Embra pack.  Finally, any pack that struggles in the scrummage as badly as Embra did on Friday must look at whether the tighthead is performing.

 

Cometh the hour, cometh the man - it is surely now time to start Greig Laidlaw at 9, for all the well-known reasons.

   

 Meanwhile, back at Ravers, Andrew Trimble was on the board early, his unconverted try on two minutes was set up by a decent enough O’Connor cross-kick that should really have been gathered by the defence.  Chris Paterson replied with a penalty after some decent Embra pressure in response.

 

 

After O’Connor, unusually, actually nailed a place kick, Ulster then added a second try.  Stephen Ferris almost bullocked over, with the ball then shifted quickly wide for Whitten to beat Visser for the try, again unconverted.  Paterson added a second penalty to make the score at the break 13-6 Ulster.  While the visitors had battled away and defended gamely, Ulster were looking pretty comfortable.

 

O’Connor added a further three points to the lead shortly after the restart, before last season’s leading hitman, Tim Visser, scored a fine solo try.  Godman, taking over the placekicking from the injured Paterson, cut the home lead to three with the conversion.  And although O’Connor kicked another penalty on 50 minutes, with Newlands now in the bin, Godman took the margin back to three with a penalty of his own.  19-16 going into the final quarter and all to play for.

 

This is the time in any close match where the side that can dominate will generally prevail and that is what happened.  The Ulster pack took control, setting the platform for O’Connor to drop a goal and then Cave ghosted over for the converted try that killed the game late on.  Cairns managed to cross for a second Embra touchdown, but the missed conversion meant that the Gunners returned from Belfast without even the consolation of a losing bonus. 

 

So comfortable were Ulster in their victory that one could not even bring oneself to moan about Italian referees.  They won fair and square.  Fair play to them.

 

Losing at Murrayfield on Friday against a weakened Leinster side that has just been horsed by Benetton Treviso would be unthinkable.  Gonnae no’ do that lads.

 

Scorers

Ulster: Tries: Trimble, Whitten, Cave. Con O'Connor. Pens: O'Connor 3. Drop Goal O'Connor.

Edinburgh: Try Visser, Cairns. Con Godman. Pens Paterson 2 Godman 1

Ulster: J Smith; P Emerick, D Cave, I Whitten, A Trimble; N O'Connor, P Marshall; B Young, A Kyriacou, T Court, J Muller (capt), R Caldwell, S Ferris, C Henry, R Diack. Subs Used: R Best, BJ Botha, P Wannenburg, I Porter,

Edinburgh: C Paterson; M Robertson, B Cairns, A Grove, T Visser; P Godman, M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross, S MacLeod, C Hamilton, S Newlands, N Talei, R Grant (capt). Subs Used : K Traynor, J Gilding, S McInally, D Denton, G Laidlaw, J Houston.