Up until 3.45pm on Sunday, October 17 past, everything in Ulster Rugby’s garden appeared to be rosy.
Played six, won five, drawn one was their impressive 2010-11 record, this without having even gone close to engaging top gear. It looked to be only a matter of time until they did. All very promising.
Until, that is, a second-half capitulation to Biarritz who had scored only 10 tries in their 10 matches prior to the Heineken Cup Pool 4 meeting with Brian McLaughlin’s side eight days ago.
That sunny afternoon at Parc des Sports Aguiléra, Biarritz scored four tries in little over 30 minutes, condemning Ulster to their first reversal of the season, the margin having been 35-15.
For the first time, one or two expressed doubts, daring to suggest that people perhaps had been kidding themselves into believing that Ulster were further on in their development than actually was the case.
That made Friday night’s Magners League date with Edinburgh at Murrayfield a very important match. It was to have been the occasion when Ulster got back on track following the previous weekend’s blip.
It didn’t work out that way. Once again, having been the better side in the first-half at the end of which they led 10-8 — and it ought to have been more — Ulster lost the plot in the second.
They began to concede penalties and to make errors for which they were punished. As a result they were 21-16 in arrears when the full-time whistle sounded.
Two penalties from Paddy Wallace, who also converted Ian Whitten’s well-worked 30th minute try and an Ian Humphreys goal were trumped by Chris Paterson’s hat-trick of penalties and his conversion of Netani Talei’s touch-down, a try by Fraser McKenzie and David Blair’s drop goal.
In south-west France the previous Sunday they had forfeited their ‘unbeaten this season’ tag. On Friday night in the Scottish capital their status as the only side in the 2010-11 Magners League not to have lost went too.
Two big hits in six days.
Next up are Munster, the League leaders and a side in top form, witness their performances against big-spending Toulon on the European stage followed by Friday night’s five-try Thomond Park romp against Benetton Treviso.
On the eve of Ulster’s defeat by Biarritz I sat in my hotel room watching French television coverage of Munster’s rout of Toulon. They were awesome; it was Munster at their best, playing with a power, passion, pace and panache.
If Ulster are to make the last 16 of the Heineken Cup they must play with the same sort of intensity and accuracy as Munster displayed on that occasion. Equally, if they are to qualify for the Magners League play-offs by virtue of a top four finish, they must start to show some of what has been missing.
Yes, there are new players in the side and it takes time to gel, but that does not explain the temerity of those two successive defeats or the fact that so many of the big name players failed to stand up when required to do so.
Pre-Murrayfield I wondered if Ulster had really crashed or merely suffered a puncture in Biarritz. Post-Friday I am still wondering.
What I do know is that they are still off the road. Now they must try to get back on it, rejoining ahead of the Munster juggernaut. That won’t be easy.