Ulster unafraid ahead of daunting semi-final clash with Leinster
‘There’s nothing they did that we couldn’t have a response to,’ says Beth Cregan after looking back on the loss to Leinster in the round robin stage.
DESPITE THEIR EXTREMELY frustrating run of form in the Women’s Inter-provincial Championship, Beth Cregan is adamant Ulster are heading in the right direction under Director of Rugby Derek Suffern.
Working in tandem with head coach Neill Alcorn, the former Ballynahinch RFC supremo is plotting an almighty shock tomorrow afternoon (kick-off 3.45pm), the downfall of champions Leinster at Templeville Road. The meeting of provinces north and east forms part of a semi-final double-header with the clash of Munster and Connacht, while the four provinces also compete in the U18 Championships at the Templeogue venue.
“Since Derek Suffern has come in as our Director of Rugby, there has been such a drastic change over the last three years. Even in terms of our training and things, it has just become a lot more professional within the set-up,” the Ulster captain remarked on this week.
“It has even stepped up way more this year and the expectations that has probably been placed on the girls. Previously, we just kind of made the transition from club to province and if you went elsewhere, then you had that step up. Whereas now we definitely have a step up from club to dealing with inter-pros.”
Ulster remain without an inter-provincial victory since 2012, but came agonisingly close to ending the drought when they faced Connacht in a group stage encounter at Queen’s University a fortnight ago. A promising start gave rise to hope of a morale-boosting win, only for an early second period blitz to propel the western province towards a 20-19 triumph.
“The girls were very unlucky that day. There was a few things we should have controlled that we didn’t control. We went into half-time in the lead. Came out and fell asleep for 10 minutes and Connacht scored 10 points. We should have scored earlier in response and we didn’t.
“Connacht, fair play to them, their defence really stepped up in the second half. We scored – in what we didn’t know was going to be the last play of the game – to bring it to one point. We thought we had time to go back down the pitch for the three points.”
The decision to extend the provincial season – and gather all four sides together for a festival of rugby at St Mary’s College RFC – was taken with a view to increasing the profile of the women’s game in Ireland. A finals day is also set to take place at MU Barnhall next weekend, with both senior and U18 championships being completed at the north Kildare club.
From Cregan’s point of view, the link-up between the adult and underage teams has been of significant benefit to the game in the north.
“Having the semi-finals and finals played together, and having the U18s and women’s matches on the same days has definitely promoted it. Because we go to our U18 matches as long as we can, obviously until we’re into warm-up stuff. Then the U18s will stay after the match to watch us. You’re getting rugby players and rugby fans to watch more of the matches.”
Cregan and her team-mates got a taste of what Leinster are made of when the sides faced each other at City of Armagh RFC on August 24.
That meeting ended in a 24-5 win for the visitors, who eventually pulled away after encountering significant resistance from their plucky opponents. The loss of Claire McLaughlin to ankle surgery hampers Ulster’s chances, but the presence of international stars Lucinda Kinghan and Kathryn Dane (albeit on the bench) is a bonus for Suffern and Alcorn’s charges.
“I know Leinster did haul in all the changes when they came up to play us, but it was a very tight match. They pulled away in the last-third, but it was nothing that we were scared of. Whenever we went back to the video review and looked back at the match, we said ourselves if we had any of the teams again we would have been comfortable enough to go back at it,” Cregan said.
“There’s nothing they did that we couldn’t have a response to. Our mistakes were small scale errors and not big, collective team system errors. It’s a really good place for us to be in.”