Ulster players will need time to get over Toulouse grief but we need to bounce back for Munster duel: Iain Henderson
Losing on such a stage in such a way will always bring hangover fears. Ulster regrouped this morning knowing they were within their reach to knock out Europe’s most successful side.
Six points ahead of Toulouse after the first leg, and leading by the same margin with five minutes remaining in Saturday night’s draw, Ulster had to weather many storms to reach this point, only to come undone in plain sight. from the horizon.
For much of those 160 minutes, the worst possible draw in the Round of 16 seemed to have the dream result for a side who have not progressed from a knockout tie in Europe’s top competition since winning. reached the final ten years ago.
To do this against Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and others would have acted as a real scorer, especially after such a frustrating campaign last time. Instead, they’ll be watching the quarter-finals from the couch, no doubt feeling they’re as good as many who progressed to those matches in early May.
There are no dark clouds over Ravenhill, not with a team where Mike Lowry, James Hume, Robert Baloucone, Ethan McIlroy, Marcus Rea and Nick Timoney are expected to continue to progress for many years to come.
But despite being a different team from past knockout failures, apparently being a fourth iteration of the team since silverware was last secured in 2006, they will also know that after this season and last, the time to talk about lessons has passed and the time to show that they have been learned has now come.
It can’t be too damning when ultimately it was the brilliance of truly world-class players that proved the difference, but also, coupled with last year’s Challenge Cup setback against Leicester Tigers when progression has also been let out of their grasp despite a double-digit lead, it’s a streak that can’t be allowed to become a pattern.
How the team reacts to such an infuriating setback will now define their season.
“When we look at the loss for us, it’s with incredible frustration rather than the previous years where we looked at it and went ‘we got beat up there’ or ‘they got away with it’. “said Ulster skipper Iain Henderson who threw away everything but the kitchen sink in Toulouse.
“Duane (Vermeulen) had a good chat with us after the game and said a loss like this, some guys would get over it in 15 minutes, some guys would get over it in a week, and for some guys that would be longer. There’s no right or wrong way to look at this.
“We have to rally together and make sure everyone supports each other and make sure we are physically and emotionally ready to go next weekend.
“It’s hard to get straight back into it, but it will be one of our goals with a huge focus over the next two games.
“These next two games are going to be huge in defining how we end the season, so we need to make sure we can show ourselves, the staff and everyone else that we are capable of bouncing back. and perform well on the heels of an emotional loss.
“That’s definitely going to be a big priority for us this week.”
That means preparing for Munster, an inter-pro who will have a say in who claims a place in the league’s top two and with it home advantage in any potential United Rugby Championship semi-final.
Assuming Leinster are home and watered in their usual first place, Ulster have a head start in what could still be a seven-horse race for finalists.
Level on points with Glasgow, who will spend the next two weeks in South Africa where Ulster recently suffered a similarly unsuccessful trip, Dan McFarland’s men are three points clear of fourth-placed Munster with a chance to make a decisive leap further ahead of their southern rivals on Friday night.
After that, there will be just two rounds of action left before the start of the play-offs in early June.
The danger, however, is that this will be a game where it will be just as tempting to frame the 80 minutes around what could have been rather than what is at stake.
If Ulster had not faltered against Toulouse, losing at home in a meaningful game for the first time in 13 months, then this clash would have looked more like a dress rehearsal than a decisive game, an appetizer to the main course of the Champions Cup quarter-final.
As it stands, Munster will instead host Toulouse at the Aviva rather than returning north next month.
Ulster need to reframe this game in their minds. What once seemed like a warm-up of sorts becomes a key matchup in their season.
Deprived of silverware for so long, it would be foolish to consider a lean towards the league title as some kind of consolation prize, but there is no doubt that the return of such a great European evening and the knowledge of what he opportunity a quarter-final in Belfast would have been, has the potential to be huge.
“Nothing like Munster coming to town to refocus the mind,” McFarland said. “Listen, I’ll be (bored), we’ll all be (bored).
“We’re going to play the game again, we’ll be grumpy with each other for a while and then we’ll get over it because we have to. We have to beat Munster here on Friday. We only have one competition to focus on now.
“It will be a big task on Friday, picking everyone up, but we will do it. Everything will be fine for us.”
Making sure they get there as soon as possible now seems like an imperative.
The big game at a glance
MAN OF MATCH – Anthony Jelonch
Arriving in Belfast without a number of players who formed the backbone of the French Grand Slam squad, one of those who stayed for Toulouse was a force throughout the competition. Involved in both Ulster maps, Jelonch’s impact in the contact zone provided his biggest contribution.
In truth, it was a tie where the momentum swung like a pendulum, but the final decisive change came with Tom O’Toole’s red card in the 65th minute for a hit on Anthony Jelonch, 10 minutes before the score winner.
AND AFTER ?
It is vitally important that Ulster continue to secure a place in the top two of the United Rugby Championship, especially with so many of their rivals for positions still fighting on two fronts.
Dan McFarland’s men won away in the last four against Edinburgh two years ago but making the league final should be seen as a baseline expectation now with their chances vastly improved by staging a semi-final potential at Ravenhill for the first time since 2013. With three games to go, it’s in their hands.