Travelling back from Bath after Ulster’s victory last Saturday, I must confess that the emotions were mixed — utter delight at the result and a first win on English soil in the Heineken Cup and sheer frustration at aspects of the performance and the fact that a bonus point victory had not been achieved.
This frustration has only been heightened by the fact that missing out on a bonus point cost Ulster the chance of playing knock-out rugby in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Looking at the dynamics of the game, it was difficult not to feel that we had let Bath well and truly off the hook.
In the opening 40 minutes, Ulster had the bulk of possession and territory, yet struggled to create a try-scoring opportunity.
After the interval, it seemed that the message had changed with a far more attacking mindset with ball being run back out of defence. That set the tone and two quickfire tries came within eight minutes.
The state of play? Ulster in a winning position, halfway to a bonus point, Bath down to 14 men and up against the ropes.
It is hard to believe, then, that Bath played most of the rugby for the next 20 minutes and ended up dominating possession and territory in the second-half.
What seemed to be all important was the victory, that elusive victory on English soil in the Heineken Cup.
The monkey on the back was more like a gorilla and it encouraged conservatism in the face of a potential bonus point victory.
Ironically, a bonus point may have been achieved even with this approach, had Simon Daniellifted the ball to Jamie Smith for a certain try. However, Danielli’s superb break and Paddy Wallace’s try four minutes from time were virtual blips in a final 30 minutes that belonged to Bath.
Ulster needed to raise the tempo again, go on the attack and polish off the game rather than simply close it out.
Get the monkey from the back?
Ulster needed to release the monkey from its cage and it was hugely frustrating to see Ian Humphreys not appear off the bench to lift the tempo again.
While the scoreboard looked emphatic by the end of the game, it was inspired individual play that broke Bath hearts.
Last week I wrote that if the ball could reach the wingers in space, then this could spell trouble.
Simon Danielli threatened his old club’s defensive line every time he got the ball and showed his skill and balance with chip kicks and swerving runs.
Andrew Trimble’s try not only had him, but also the rest of us, gasping for breath.
Undoubtedly one of the tries of the season it was all about power, acceleration and self-belief to
finish what he started. After stepping inside, his pace off the mark was incredible, he looked around for the pass, but with the admirable Tom Court as his only option, he stepped on the gas again and found an extra gear.
It was truly a try to take the breath away and Trimble’s timing is impeccable — he is back hammering on Ireland’s door.
Despite the frustrations of this final game and the fact that Ulster have missed out on further European rugby, looking at this season’s Heineken campaign there is real cause for optimism.
The performance against Stade Francais put Ulster back on the European map and we got that win in England. The magnificent travelling support, that just seems to get better and better, really had something to cheer for this season and the crowd’s reactions in Bath made you feel proud to be an Ulster supporter.
In general, the players looked far more confident and for this Brian McLaughlin and his coaching staff deserve much credit.
Second place is a major improvement on previous European adventures and Ulster can look forward to next season with renewed enthusiasm in the knowledge that it will not get much closer than it did in 2009-10.