While disappointed to lose their opening game, there were still plenty of positives for Ulster to take forward into the remainder of their Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship campaign.
An eventual 41-14 defeat to reigning champions Munster does not give a true reflection of how well Ulster played during their first competitive outing under a new coaching team, led by Scotsman Murray Houston.
Houston’s side briefly led early on in Armagh thanks to Ella Durkan’s opportunist try, and a powerful effort from flanker Maebh Clenaghan clawed the deficit back to 10 points nearing the hour mark.
However, Ulster left a number of other chances behind them – most notably from some promising maul positions and bouts of forward pressure – and a late Munster flourish tagged three more tries onto their bonus point haul.
Reflecting on the hosts’ performance afterwards at City of Armagh RFC, Ulster captain Beth Cregan conceded: “Bit of a bittersweet moment. I really think we put a lot of pressure on there.
“I think if you look back to the results from last January and the Interpros before that, you can definitely see the improvements that we had.
“But to be honest with you, we’re disappointed. I do think that we left the win out there, and it’s probably the first time in a number of years that we’ve been able to say that after playing Munster.”
Results have certainly been hard to come by for Ulster in recent seasons, but their determination to close the gap on the leading provinces – something which teenage prop Sadhbh McGrath spoke about before the tournament – was very evident last Saturday.
Putting it all together in a winning performance is the challenge facing Houston and his players. Only being 24-14 behind Munster with 15 minutes remaining shows the strides they are making, especially when you consider they lost 50-5 and 34-0 to the same opposition in the last two seasons.
Cregan just wants her team-mates to fulfil their potential and push as hard as they can in pursuit of that elusive victory.
Collectively they do look a stronger outfit now, particularly in the pack where McGrath, Fiona Tuite and Ireland Under-20 international Sophie Barrett brought impact, and centre Kelly McCormill also had a couple of surging breaks.
Cregan, who was an Energia All-Ireland League title winner with Blackrock College last year, praised Munster’s ability to score at crucial stages while Ulster’s own execution let them down.
“Well done to the Munster girls,” noted the 27-year-old hooker. “They really showed true grit there. We were putting them under pressure and we were really giving it to them, and they just showed their status as champions there.
“Especially in this ‘Championship minutes’, they were able to turn it on and that’s just something that we need to work on. We’re in a place now where small details are going to make a massive difference.
“Small details for us, like either side of the 22, and that scoreline changes. It’s bittersweet definitely, brilliant positives there but lots to work on going into this week. Still obviously disappointed that we didn’t execute.”
Ulster return to Energia Park this Saturday, a venue they last played at in September 2021 when they drew 12-all with Connacht in an action-packed encounter. Leinster, who also lost last weekend, will be looking to make home advantage count.
With some key areas he wants his charges to perform better in, head coach Houston insisted: “We’ll just continue to tighten up on our attack. Particularly our contact skills, around the tackle and the breakdown, just making sure we’re really efficient.
“Once we get in the 22, we’re squeaky clean so that they’re not going to get any opportunity for any turnovers, so that we keep that ball and we just build the phases, and the chances will come.”