"This seems to happen a lot with Ulster" - Six days that changed everything
"For the first three-quarters of the season, Ulster looked unbelievable."
Darren Cave has taken a couple of pops at Munster's playing style, in recent months, but he was happy to give them all the credit necessary for coming to Belfast and beating Ulster on their home patch.
In the space of a few weeks, we have seen the narratives at both provinces flip. Ulster were flying high in the United Rugby Championship and held a six-point advantage after beating Toulouse in the first leg of their Champions Cup double-header.
Munster had lost four out of five games and there were suggestions, from some quarters, that they should ask Bath-bound Johann van Graan to pack his bags earlier than planned. Since then, it has all changed.
Toulouse overcame their deficit to break Ulster hearts at Kingspan Stadium and, the next day, Munster put a match to Exeter Chiefs' European hopes. On Friday, back up at Ravenhill, Munster came to town and left with a vital away win that now leaves Dan McFarland's side facing road-trips in the URC knock-out stages. They could even be hopping on a plane bound for South Africa.
On the latest House of Rugby URC [LISTEN from 1:40 below], Greg O'Shea, Jason Hennessy and Darren Cave looked back on that Ulster loss to Munster and discussed some team selection calls.
"It's all falling apart again"
"I agreed to come on to this show at half-time in the Toulouse away game," Darren Cave remarked. "Six days later and Ulster are a shambles, and I couldn't get out of it!"
The former Ulster and Ireland centre felt the current swathe of URC games was a good opportunity to gather ground on Leinster, and push clear of Munster, while they were still competing in Europe. "I didn't think Munster were even that good," he adds.
"They were really professional in what they did. I just feel Ulster kind of just beat themselves. It was really disappointing... Ulster sometimes seem to lose games they should win, and Munster is the opposite. They just get it done."
Cave says there was a genuine belief among many Ulster supporters that they could advance to the Champions Cup semi-finals, as they would have faced Ulster at home in the quarters. And, before the loss on Friday, finishing second behind Leinster and ensuring a home URC semi was a realistic target.
Jason Hennessy wondered aloud how Ulster's promising season had been sent floundering in such a short space of time.
"I was listening to Stephen Ferris talking about it on Premier Sports. This seems to happen a lot with Ulster. They have a cracking start to the season. For the first three-quarters of the season, Ulster looked unbelievable.
"All of a sudden, in the space of six days, it's all falling apart again."
Cave has been critical of the Munster attack under coach Stephen Larkham, but he notes how the southern province has 15 more league tries [almost one per game] than Ulster. Another part of the game that Cave questioned was Mike Lowry getting another start in the 10 jersey, while Ian Madigan was left on the bench until late in the game.
The No.10 dilemma
While Darren Cave was fulsome in his praise of Joey Carbery, he pointed to Ulster not having someone other than Billy Burns that they rely on in the No.10 jersey.
Ian Madigan missed some of the season with injury issues but has struggled to get decent minutes under Dan McFarland, this season, since eturning to full fitness. Jake Flannery is coming from Munster, this summer, but the province has chewed through a few out-halves since the departure of Paddy Jackson.
"I feel Ulster lack a second No.10, in terms of controlling the game," says Cave. "In the Toulouse game, Tom O'Toole got red carded, but Billy Burns went off for concussion at a very similar time. They've been this way for the last three or four seasons. In South Africa, they were even chucking minutes there at John Cooney and Nathan Doak."
Greg O'Shea asked the valid question about not getting much game time. The former Leinster and Bristol outhalf has only has one start and six sub appearances since returning to the fold in January.
"Even when you look at when Bill Johnston and Johnny McPhillips were there, they haven't settled on a back-up 10. When Billy Burns is not playing... and I think he comes in for criticism, at times, that is not always fair. But if you look at how so many of the outside backs are excelling at Ulster, there's no acknowledgement for who is giving them that space. Look at James Hume, Robert Baloucoune and Mike Lowry, from fullback. They're carving it.
"I just don't think Michael Lowry is just as natural a fit there for Ulster. I know he played there at school, but in terms of managing games, exiting well and mixing up attacks with only 14 players, kicking in behind, and such. To go from 20 minutes left [against Toulouse] and chuck a guy in there that had started only four or five games at 10 for Ulster ever. And then to go in and start against Munster, in the very next biggest game of the season.
"Like, you've signed Ian Madigan and he's probably getting paid a few quid. He hasn't really played at all with Ulster since he got there [31 appearances, 12 starts]. I think they've got the whole dynamic wrong."
Ulster are down to fifth in the URC standings after sitting second at 7:35pm on Friday night.
The gap to the 8th place team is now only three points. They are away to Edinburgh [7th] this weekend before facing an ever-improving Sharks at home. There is only one cup to play for now, but Ulster need to get back to winning ways, and soon.