One week ago I predicted that Ulster’s match against Biarritz at the Stade Aguilera would be a gauge of just how far the team had developed in the last few months.
The temperature check registered a big shock to both players and coaches. For a supporter, it left you wondering whether all the hype and expectation was at best misplaced or at worst utterly misguided.
If you were to apply a simple test of pass and fail then a 35-15 defeat gives a very definitive result, but rarely are performances and results as cut and dried as this. Nevertheless, there will be more post match analysis than usual into why and how the wheels came off in such dramatic fashion.
That old cliché of rugby being a game of two halves has never been truer. The big difference was that Ulster did not convert their domination of territory and possession in the first half into points. There were several potential try-scoring opportunities that went astray and Ulster got the ultimate demonstration that if you aspire to be up there with the best, then you cannot squander your chances.
Taking the positives — the opening 40 minutes proved that Ulster can compete at the higher levels of European rugby. The scrums were decent, the lineout dominant, and Ian Humphreys pulled the strings well enough to ask questions of the opposition defence.
Three points was scant return and Dimitri Yachvili’s penalty just before half-time left you with the impression that Biarritz must have been enormously relieved to be going in at the break with the scoreline level.
What happened next was a shocker. After an enthralling counter attack from USA wing, Zee Ngwenya, the French sparked into life. Suddenly the tempo was lifted and Biarritz found themselves in an attacking position. The pressure was raised ever so slightly, a try was scored, suddenly daylight appeared on the scoreboard and Ulster imploded.
It comes back to that intangible factor of self-belief. The margin at this stage was still only seven points, but after all the effort of the first 40 minutes, the score rocked Ulster’s confidence, the players’ mental state and body language sank and a sudden avalanche of unforced errors kicked in.
Unless you have been in that situation it is hard to conceive how a team can react in such a way. I have, unfortunately, been there too often in France and uncomfortably must confess that I know the phenomenon. You sense this surge of confidence in the French team, the tempo picks up and all of a sudden tackles are being broken and you feel like you are chasing shadows.
The crowd explodes into life and miscommunication and confusion infiltrates your mind. Forward passes, knock-ons, missed tackles and penalties. Scores seem to come like a machine-gun. Standing in what feels like a maelstrom, even time seems to take on a life of its own. You look up at the scoreboard, the game is effectively over, and you wonder “What just happened?”
In this sort of situation, you need your senior players to come to the fore and guide you through the maelstrom. What was striking is that the foreign legion got sucked into this same downward spiral. Ulster’s Springboks got a real and bitter taste of what the Heineken Cup can be about — they were no better or no worse than anyone else, but we expected better.
When it counted, the big players of Biarritz stood up and made a difference. Stop Dimitri Yachvili and you stop Biarritz. Ulster didn’t and we witnessed some moments of magic, including a majestic flick back inside which led to Biarritz’s third try. This week in training will test the players far more than the first six weeks of the season. It is much easier when you are winning. They will have to be honest with each and, together, decide on how best to move forward. This weekend is an excellent examination on the pitch of Ulster’s resolve.
Given a bit of good fortune they could be leading their Heineken Cup group rather than having succumbed to two narrow defeats which virtually rules them out of quarter-final. We will know more about this group of players in a couple of days’ time.