What a game at the Rec last Saturday. It is amazing how a match can contain so many parallels and such a multitude of contrasts all in the space of seven days.
The most glaring similarity was the four-point victory that Ulster inflicted on Bath for a second time in a week and the second year in a row. There were the same thrills and spills, but this latest game was even more dramatic. Ultimately, last Saturday was the best and most satisfying of Ulster’s four victories in the last two seasons.
Once again, it toyed with the heart rate and blood pressure, but how different it felt that the final minutes were spent hammering the Bath tryline rather than the desperate defence of a reversed situation seven days earlier.
Ulster’s victory was impressive because on this occasion, Bath turned up. This was largely down to the return of Butch James. The Springbok plays his rugby right on the edge and almost overstepped the mark on a few occasions. Like him or loathe him, what is undeniable is that he made an immediate impact on the way and effectiveness with which Bath played the game. Even more impressive was the fact that this was James’ first game since the summer. It is to Ian Humphreys’ credit, then, that he outplayed and overshadowed the Springbok international.
For me, two moments in the game stand out as crucial.
The first was Nevin Spence’s try right at the end of the ten-minute spell when Bath were down to 14 men. The home side had done well in running down the clock and almost survived, but Ulster kept their focus and patience, moved the Bath defensive line around, won vital yards and finally eked out a spare yard to allow Spence to go in for a vital score. This established an Ulster lead for the first time in the game, a position which they never relinquished.
This was in part due to the respective kicking performances of Ian Humphreys and Olly Barkley. While Humphreys nailed everything in sight, including a majestic conversion from the left touchline, the former England player had a kicking rate of less than 60%.
The second and most important moment of the game was Barkley’s missed conversion of Matt Banahan’s try. This would have re-established a lead for Bath and instead provided enormous encouragement for Ulster who went straight down the pitch and another penalty left Bath with the prospect of having to score another try to win the game.
Ulster missed the rampaging nature of Stephen Ferris’ ball-carrying, but the team worked that much harder to get across the gain line and recycle the ball. Likewise, Ulster’s defence was tested far more by Bath’s runners and attack than the previous week, but the organisation and collective will eventually paid off. Players worked tirelessly at the breakdown and produced ball quick enough to allow Ian Humphreys to work his magic.
The match was a personal triumph for Ulster’s No 10 and Humphreys continually asked questions of Bath’s defence. Because his play is so varied, the outhalf creates an element of confusion in the opposition’s minds and, together with his strike runners, Humphreys orchestrated a pleasing array of linebreaks. This contributed to the difference from last week that every try in the game was crafted and created rather than being the product of a glaring mistake from either side.
So, Ulster have won the first of their three cup finals. The destiny of Heineken qualification is tantalisingly within reach. What is also extraordinary is the possibility that even if Ulster win their two remaining fixtures, the team may still not come top of their Group or qualify for the quarter finals as one of the top two runners up. In all likelihood, bonus points will be the deciding factor. Nonetheless, all you can do is control the controllable and two more wins and at least 21 points would be an excellent return and put Ulster right in the mix at the end of the qualifying stage.