The Boxing Day (or St. Stephen’s Day, whichever you prefer) game is tradition, and I have nothing against that in the slightest. But whoever decided that Ulster v Connacht and Munster v Leinster should be played within a couple of hours of each other on the same day is not someone I am too enamoured with. To miss out on one of the stand out fixtures of the Pro12 season is something I wasn't all too happy about, and to miss it to cover the snooze-fest that the Ulster match was made me even angrier.
If you read my match report you will see just how boring it was in that I had next to nothing to write about for the first 20 minutes of the second half. There was no action, no noteworthy events to acknowledge, not even anything from the crowd to write about – it was a boring game. Full credit to John Lacey who was very lenient with the whistle in an attempt to keep the game moving but even that couldn’t spark the two teams into life.
In saying all that it wasn’t a game for the backs, what with all the rain before kick-off and during the match, but even so it was a game that was so devoid of interesting and entertaining plays that had the entire stadium got up and left I’m not sure you could’ve blamed them. Craig Gilroy’s try aside (and some try at that), neither team’s backs did anything worthy of reporting on and probably could have taken the afternoon off.
For Connacht it was because they were starved of any meaningful possession. Pat Lam has engineered them into a formidable outfit this season and they will make a considerable effort to qualify for next season's Champions’ Cup in the latter stages of this season, but even the best sides can’t play rugby without a ball. In the end they did leave with a bonus point which they deserved for their defensive efforts, although Lam will be understandably annoyed that they didn’t make a better attempt at getting all four.
Meanwhile, it was another chapter in Ulster’s forgettable performances book. In a game where they had the majority of possession and territory as well as a scrum on the front foot, they could still only put 13 points on the board and eventually just hold on for the victory. This was seen as the game where Neil Doak’s men would get back on the winning trail and promote themselves once more as potential title candidates, however all they managed to do was further convince pundits and fans alike that this is a team in decline.
Maybe I am being unnecessarily harsh – after all, the conditions in Belfast were poor and certainly did not encourage running rugby, but it was very disheartening to see Ulster continue with their relentless tactic of ballooning the ball miles in the air at every available opportunity. With probably the best side of backs on the island of Ireland at our disposal, to see the ball never get any further than Paddy Jackson is getting increasingly frustrating for us as fans.
How many times did Peter Nelson actually touch the ball on Friday night? Or Michael Allen in Swansea?
I’m not saying kicking is necessarily the wrong tactic, because it wasn’t in Friday night’s conditions, however if we are going to deploy the up-and-under on a regular basis then our kickers need to be better and we need to have wingers who are willing to chase down the ball like their lives depend on it. That’s where we desperately miss Andrew Trimble as someone who will relentlessly sprint after the ball in the air and at least put pressure on the catcher. Neither Peter Nelson nor Craig Gilroy did that on Friday.
Still, you’d think we’d lost to Connacht the way I’m going on. The good news is that we finally got four points on the board in the Pro12 and we’re back into the play-off spots with a vital clash against Leinster to come on Saturday. Leinster, like us, aren’t in the greatest run of form and should we manage to escape the RDS with any kind of win then we will severely dent their top four aspirations as well as furthering our own. These are the games that will decide which of the big five will be on the outside looking in when it comes to May.
These are the games you have to win.