RUGBY FEATURE: The views of Ulster analyst and skills coach Niall Malone

Ulster's Niall Malone
Ulster's Niall Malone

Ulster analyst and skills coach Niall Malone’s playing career spanned both the amateur and professional era.

He would have enjoyed having the data that today’s players have when no stone is unturned in the preparation for games.

“I wish I’d had the video footage the players have access to now but some of the numbers I think see people get a wee bit bogged down in stat sheets,” said Malone.

“I prefer to show evidence in clips, now players get to see every moment in slow motion or freeze frame and I think the ante has been raised from having it as I think there is now no real hiding place.

“In my day if you made a mistake you hoped nobody had noticed whereas now everyone can see it.”

Malone feels a lack of information contributed to the Leicester Tigers losing the second Heineken Cup final against Brive in Cardiff when he was on the bench for the English side.

“We got hammered, we’d beaten Toulouse in the semi-final and thought that was our game to win the tournament.

“We’d never heard of Brive and (Christophe) Lamaison who we’d never heard of either ended up winning about 50 caps for France after that and a Polish flanker called (Gregori) Kacala who absolutely destroyed us.

“Because there was no analysis we reckoned knowing a bit about one of two of their games would be enough but that was a huge mistake.

“That was one of the worst days as the expectation was that we were going there for a parade.

“It was stupid thinking back but we’d put out Toulouse at Welford Road in the semi-final and they were the kings of Europe in those days, we got cocky and got what we deserved.”

It’s a case of once bitten twice shy for Malone as he meticulously prepares Ulster for a must win game against Toulouse on Friday.

“Every week it’s the same, I’ve had 12 Toulouse games to look through which I’ve done and I’ve been doing that for the last number of weeks to prep for this game.

“I’m trying to give guidance to the players to the coaches to point out a few things I think we can exploit on Friday.

“We assume it’s going to be good weather when we’re doing our prep and late in the week we make changes weather-wise.

“Last week was horrendous, particularly the wind but I thought that was our best half of rugby this season with the wind.

“Some people look at the score rather than the performance and for me we got over the line three times.

“We’ll be hoping for a dry night and I know people will be thinking that Toulouse’s expansive play might be suited to a dry night but we back ourselves to play in good weather and we’d prefer good weather.

“We analysis every aspect of it, our scrum against Edinburgh was outstanding as their front row had demolished opponents over the previous few weeks. I thought that was the foundation of our win over Edinburgh.

“I guide the coaches and feed them information to help them.”

Malone has pinpointed the areas he hopes Ulster can utilise against the French side.

“They off-load out of virtually every single collision which is not what we’re used to seeing in the PRO12 where we see the odd offload.

“Some of them (their offloads) are quite foolish I think so we’re hoping to exploit that.

“They just seem to be trying to score from everywhere on the pitch and I think it could be a really exciting game a bit like watching Bath at the weekend, those sort of teams who sell themselves as attacking sides.

“Sometimes it’s spectacular and sometimes it’s quite naive so obviously we’re hoping to pick up a few scraps and capitalise a bit on their potentially over-elaborate play.”

Predicting how Toulouse play is easier than who they will play with the resources at their disposal.

“We don’t know as there’s no real pattern, Dusaitoir, Harinorduquy and all these guys you think they’re so good but it doesn’t matter if ones’ out or one’s in.

“We feel that they play like 15 super individuals and we’re kind of hoping our team structure and team play can outmanoeuvre their individual brilliance.”

The former Ireland international out half hasn’t had much time on the pitch in his role as skills coach

“When the players get bumped and bruised our training is quite limited and I think people might be surprised at how little we’re able to do physically because the bodies are tired.

“Monday is quite light, Tuesday is our big session, Wednesday off and Thursday a quick run so I do what I can but really when you get into these games it’s just about having fresh bodies at the weekend which is most important rather than having an extra skills session.

“I haven’t done a lot of kicking with the guys.

“Jacko is doing a lot of good kicking for us and I think that could be important because if their back three are loose then I think we could do well.

“I don’t think this year our kicking game has been so prominent.

“In previous years we’ve been renowned for it with Tommy Bowe and Trimby putting pressure on but I think we’re actually looking more threatening with the ball in hand and we’re kicking slightly less than we were but it might suit us to kick at the weekend as their back three tend to be so ambitious.”

Defeat on Friday won’t end Ulster’s European hopes but Malone admits it would be an uphill task.

“I think losing two home games could be bad, mathematically four wins and a few bonuses gets you up there and with 18 points you might.

“The truth is if we can’t win either of our two home games I think we’re going to be struggling.

“But we haven’t really talked about that this week it’s been about the good things that really worked against Edinburgh and trying to make those things better with hopefully more conducive weather.

“There’s been a spring in the players’ steps this week off the back of that.”