THERE MAY BE one more game for Ulster to take care of this season when they travel to Edinburgh on Saturday, but already some of the dissection of this season’s shortcomings has begun ahead of next season.
For all the positives that the province can take from this campaign, they are still entering another summer without a trophy to show for their efforts after failing to make the knockouts of the Guinness Pro14 or Rainbow Cup, while the European Challenge Cup also fell by the wayside.
While a record of 14 wins from 16 games in the Pro14 is something to be proud of, it also masks a disappointing run in their big games since the resumption of rugby after the enforced Covid-19 lockdown back in August 2020.
Indeed, if you break it down, arguably, out of the 10 games Ulster were expected to struggle in, they won just three of them – their Pro14 semi-final against Edinburgh, their trip to Connacht over Christmas and the Challenge Cup quarter-final away to Northampton Saints.
That is why, instead of looking back more favourably on this season, there will probably be plenty of frustration over their lack of big game success to go with the pleasing aspects of the last ten months of what Dan McFarland has continued to build at Kingspan Stadium.
“We’ve had a lot of meetings over the last few weeks where we’ve dissected games from the season when we maybe slipped up, and there have been a few which have been really disappointing when we’ve been in good positions in big games and lost,” reveals flanker Greg Jones.
“That’s us looking forward to next year and preparing in a way that we can avoid making the same mistakes again.
“I think after all those big losses this year, like Toulouse and Gloucester, Leicester as well in the semi-final, they are games we reviewed really hard that like they were tough reviews for a lot of guys in that.
“We definitely looked at pinpointing moments of where we could have done something differently and where we could have been better.”
One game that evoked a rather harsh review in particular was their defeat to Gloucester at Kingsholm that sealed their Heineken Champions Cup exit, where Ulster squandered a three-point lead despite having possession in the hosts’ 22 with 50 seconds remaining.
“There was a phase with a minute to go and (in the review) we spoke about what we could have been doing (differently),” added Jones, who was an unused sub for that game.
“Last week we reviewed the Leicester game and looked at recognising momentum in the game and recognising the second half going against us and we completely lost momentum and they grew into the game.
“Dan’s a good man for having an understanding of psychology in sport and he made us dissect that game and the mentality that comes with momentum and spotting moments when you’re completely out of the game momentum-wise and how to get yourself back into it.
“And also recognising when your team has the momentum and basically maintaining it. So, without getting into specifics and match moments, we have reviewed those games really hard and learned a lot that we can use next season in big games when we get into those moments again.”
The reviews only matter, of course, if they are able to produce some solutions to the problems that have seen them come up short on the biggest stages this season, particularly against the likes of Leicester Tigers, Toulouse twice and Leinster no less than four times in the space of the last 1o months.
When asked what the key is to breaking a duck that stretches back to 2006, he allows himself a slight smile, before responding: “It’s a tough one to answer and is obviously the golden question.
“We went through a phase in training where, every time we trained 15 v 15, we’d play a scenario-based game where one team has a certain lead and one team is losing by a certain amount and we’d start from this position on the pitch with say a minute or two to go.
“The coaches will specifically give us a period where we split into our two teams and we have a minute to think about it and discuss what the next two minutes will look like and what we might try to do to win the game or come back from being behind. I think that has been hugely beneficial.
“That might be complete waffle unless we actually put it into practice next year, but I genuinely believe that the experience we’ve had in the last year and the way we have actually learned about them the week after will definitely stand to us.”
Jones is hoping to make more of an impact in match day squads when he gets the call to impress. Source: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO
As for Jones himself, much like Ulster it will be a season that he will look back on with mixed emotions as he reflects on a campaign where he made his most appearances for the province – nine to date – but also one where he felt he deserved more game time.
It’s not easy breaking into an Ulster back row that, for most of the season, had a world-class superstar in its ranks in Marcell Coetzee, a burgeoning Ireland international in Nick Timoney and the likes of Jordi Murphy and Sean Reidy too, but Jones isn’t accepting that as an excuse.