Ulster Rugby v Edinburgh

The clearing skies of late Friday night last week might have been a metaphor for the challenging few recent weeks in Ulster. ULSTER HUNTS DOWN THE PRIZE!

Just as the impressive Johnny McPhillips looked at ease at out-half, superbly mentored by John Cooney, so Stuart McCloskey, the returning Luke Marshall, Gilroy, Rob Lyttle, Chris Henry, Kieran Treadwell, John Andrew, Rodney Ah You and Darren Cave too demonstrated the ability to press home an advantage in talent over the Kings. That club needs the time and investment in players and coaches to really benefit from ‘mixing’ it in Europe. Ulster sits in third place in the PRO14’s Conference B, and needs to batten down that spot over the next several weeks to ensure rugby in May. Edinburgh’s run to fourth, just three points adrift of tonight’s hosts, has been ‘under the radar to an extent, but it has borne all the hallmarks of a Richard Cockerill side: well- organised, robust and playing to the limits of its abilities and beyond, at times. The Head Coach is a formidable character, some think unforgiving and demanding, but Leicester owes much of its astonishing success in Europe and in England’s top tier to his coaching gifts and dedicated nature. For too long home was the mausoleum that is Murrayfield in club rugby terms, but the 5,500-capacity Myreside is an intimidating place already, and Edinburgh is flourishing there, while visiting teams cannot escape a sense of real occasion in the tight little ground. Glasgow’s pre-eminence in recent years – Edinburgh’s best league finish was second in 2009 in Andy Robinson’s relatively successful reign – has very much shifted the spotlight away from the Scottish capital’s team. There have been occasional flourishes, a European Challenge Cup final when Alan Solomons was in charge in 2015 for instance, but Edinburgh has not been a team which has frightened the rugby horses in an age. This season Cockerill has changed the mentality and culture of the whole organisation, and his departure from Welford Road has stiffened his resolve to make a distinct impression at Myreside. Three regulars are in Gregor

For Jono Gibbes, in sole charge of the coaching group for the first time, the Southern Kings were never likely to add to the list of woes, and after a shaky start the players seemed to cast off any inhibitions in the nine-try romp. Craig Gilroy’s hat-trick was an obvious highlight, and he took his opportunities – and set up others – with the demeanour of someone who’s not allowed himself to dwell on any negativity but who wants to do well for Ulster while pressing his very real claims for an Ireland recall. There was a signal of sorts in the award of the captaincy to lock Alan O’Connor, not something many saw coming, but he wore the responsibility lightly as Gibbes perhaps indicated a modest ‘nod’ to the future and a changing of the guard. But the Head Coach is too shrewd as to even contemplate ‘statement’ changes in personnel until he’s had time to assess and discuss the future direction. The immediate route hoped for, of course, is upwards, so this evening’s clash with Edinburgh is a chance to take a positive step towards qualification for the knockout stages of the Guinness PRO14. That Edinburgh defeated the most-weaponed club in the competition, Leinster last weekend with that late Mark Bennett try said much about the Scots’ development under Richard Cockerill and its not-always-evident relish for the battle. Gibbes was both right and extraordinarily generous to the departed Les Kiss for his personal and professional efforts at Kingspan Stadium, and in time even the most unforgiving of supporters will accept that Kiss, in other circumstances, might have been more fortunate. But as Operations Manager Bryn Cunningham, with his expanded authority, calmly surveys the longer term, it falls to Gibbes, Niall Malone, Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon to wrench the results and performances the fans deserve.

GUEST ARTICLE: ROD NAWN But it is Ulster’s determination to regroup now, to be sure of its many talents and to acknowledge that responsibility is a shared abstract, and a very genuine reality on a rugby pitch.



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