It was billed as a must-win fixture if Ulster’s hopes of progressing beyond the group stage of the Heineken Cup for the first time in 10 seasons were not to be over before Christmas.
On Saturday at chilly Ravenhill, where the crowd sang ‘Stand Up For the Ulstermen’ with all the usual Euro-zeal, Brian McLaughlin’s Ulster men stood up for themselves and delivered against illustrious French guests, Stade Francais.
They never trailed and Stade never closed sufficiently to really threaten.
They can have no argument; Ulster deserved their 10-point victory. Indeed, the margin might well have been greater had they not eased off in the final half-hour at which stage they appeared to feel a lead of 23-6 was enough
Personally, I’m a graduate of the Best Form Of Defence Is Attack school of thought, but let’s not be hyper-critical.
Saturday has to go down as a very good afternoon’s work from which Ulster emerged without serious injury and without having allowed Stade to depart with so much as a loser’s bonus. How the French must hate the sight of Ravenhill, this having been their fifth defeat in six visits.
Those were two particularly pleasing aspects of Saturday’s triumph. There were others, not least the facts that Ulster scored two top-notch tries and Ian Humphreys kicked five from seven of his pots at the posts. With Declan Kidney watching, that won’t have harmed him. Nor will the fact that the sponsors made him their man of the match.
The front row held up well, with Tom Court, Nigel Brady and Declan Fitzpatrick refusing to be intimidated by Messrs Sylvain Marconnet, Benjamin Kayser and Rodrigo Roncero respectively.
Roncero, Stade’s squat – 5’10”, 17st 11lbs — aggressive and verbose captain, was a regular villain of the piece.
He is the sort of man opposing crowds love to hate. Nor does he endear himself to match officials. The Argentinean queried so many of English referee David Pearson’s decisions one began to feel he was on an ill-advised mission to antagonise him and the 11,000-strong Ravenhill crowd.
Anyone who knows anything about playing far from home will tell you that a primary objective is to quieten the locals’ support by first subduing their team. Roncero and his men did neither.
Ulster benefited from this, and from one or two moments of great skill grafted to several instances of good fortune. Strange, isn’t it, how in sport things can go in your favour on some days and not on others?
On Saturday, Lady Luck appeared to be looking after Ulster. Maybe it was a case of her having been able to see them for a change, for on this occasion the sky was blue rather than slate grey with rain sheeting from it.
Contrary to what many — too many — beyond this province believe, Ulster do not relish treacherous wind, incessant rain and biting cold. They actually prefer a fair day, a dry ball and a chance to show that they, too, have skills a-plenty.
Their tries — one either side of half-time — made the point admirably. Humphreys, Simon Danielli, Humphreys again and Brady was the sequence for the first, with the hooker completing a sumptuous passage to make it 8-3.
Humphreys, the scorer of an earlier penalty, converted and then replied in kind when his opposite number, Lionel Beauxis, added his second goal of the day, leaving the interval score 13-6.
A magnificent Humphreys penalty shortly after half-time opened up a 10-point breathing space and when Danielli then scored a quite superb try fashioned initially by Andrew Trimble, continued by Stephen Ferris, showing the sort of pace which left South Africans trailing in his wake last June, and finished brilliantly by Danielli, one sensed it was to be another good day. Humphreys’s conversion — his fifth success from half-a-dozen attempts — underlined the feeling.
A run of four incidents in as many minutes confirmed it was Ulster’s day. Stade replacement Geoffroy Mesina’s penalty miss was followed by an audacious, morale-sapping pick-up and clearance by Isaac Boss. Stade’s midfield strongman Mathieu Bastareaud took the ball into contact and was promptly relieved of it. And when it appeared that the French might be carving out an overlap, a poor ankle-high pass knocked on.
In the final analysis, Rabah Slimani’s 75th minute try, converted by Noel Oelsching, really didn’t matter. It was over long before that.
ULSTER: C Schicofske; A Trimble, D Cave, I Whitten, S Danielli; I Humphreys, I Boss; T Court, N Brady, D Fitzpatrick; E O’Donoghue, D Tuohy; S Ferris, D Pollock, C Henry (captain). Replacements: A Kyriacou, B Young, J Fitzpatrick, R Caldwell, W Faloon, P Marshall, N O’Connor, J Smith.
STADE FRANCAIS: H Southwell; M Gasnier, M Bastareaud, G Messina, O Phillips; L Beauxis, J Dupuy; R Roncero (captain), B Kayser, S Marconnet; A Marchois, P Pape; J Haskell, A Burban, P Rabadan. Replacements: D Szarzewki, D Attoub, R Slimani, P Vigouroux, M Bergamasco, N Oelschig, G Bousses, J Arias.
Referee: David Pearson (England)