Sometimes professional sport promotes self-interest far above the interests of the team, but Ulster’s remarkable Heineken Cup victory over Munster at Thomond Park was a stunning triumph of the team ethic. The team stayed together and played together. Not a single replacement was sent on from the Ulster bench. It was a brave call and a winning call.
After the match coach Brian Mclaughlin said: "It’s no wonder there are a few exhausted players. We thought about changes, but we felt that our momentum was good and didn’t want to disrupt what was going on out there.
“It was no disrespect to any of the guys who were on the bench in any shape or form, but Munster made changes at a crucial time and it appeared to affect them, and that, I feel, helped us towards the end.”
Flanker Stephen Ferris, held together by sticking plaster, said: “Our defence won it – I don’t think they had a line break in the whole game and as a team we were outstanding in that area. It was a great team effort and we’ve put out a statement to European rugby.” The statement was that a band of 15 brothers played a whole match togehter and a powerful Munster team, roared on by a home crowd, couldn’t score a point against them in the final 15 minutes.
Now I am not daft enough to suggest that there is no room for replacements or for squad rotation in professional rugby. Often it is a necessity. The Auckland Blues lost a match against the Hurricanes this season because Pat Lam tried to get 80 minutes out of Piri Weepu when he was barely fit enough to play 40.
It was a daft call and Weepu made two awful decisions and missed a tackle in the final five minutes. Exhausted players, in any sport, exhibit lower concentration levels. The All Blacks always sub Weepu after 60 minutes because he doesn’t exactly have what football managers call a good engine.
But too often in professional rugby a stream of replacements start running on after about the 50 minute mark. It is often pre-determined and ignores the reality of what is happening on the pitch. How often have you seen a dominant scrum undermined by the coach’s pathological desire to change the front row.
Scrum-halves are routinely changed because it is one of the physically most demanding positions on the pitch. Yet sometimes a bloke gets pulled when he is still bossing the game. It’s a preemptive strike and it often blows up in the coach’s face as the replacement takes time to find his way into the game. Australia don’t tend to pull off Will Genia too much. It helps that he is super fit, but he is also too much of a general to lose.
McLaughlin decided, rightly as it turned out, that his men were pulling together as a team and he didn’t want to break them up. It was a particularly courageous call because it was so unusual. It is easy for coaches to hide behind the routine. But if a coach does something from out of left field and it goes wrong, then he or she will get slaughtered.
Maybe McLaughlin made the big call because he wasn’t afraid of losing his job. He has already lost it. His contract was terminated mid-season. Even if Ulster wins the Heineken Cup, McLaughlin will be replaced by Mark Anscombe.
Yep, that’s right, they’re already sending on a replacement for a winning coach. The replacement fad has extended to management. Maybe on Ireland’s tour of New Zealand this summer Declan Kidney could manage the first half of the match and Brian McLaughlin could take over for the second. And just in case of mental exhaustion Joe Schmidt could sit on the bench.
Come to think of it, that might not be such a bad idea.