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Ulster's magnificent win is to no avail

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 25/01/2016

Within reach: Ulster’s Nick Williams is tackled by Julien Blanc of Oyonnax
Within reach: Ulster’s Nick Williams is tackled by Julien Blanc of Oyonnax

It's a rare day when eight tries are not enough but so it proved for Ulster in the Champions Cup this weekend with their efforts against Oyonnax on Saturday afternoon rendered moot by results elsewhere and points dropped earlier in the campaign.

The province entered the contest with the French minnows knowing they needed a bonus-point victory and help from others to make the quarter-finals and, while holding up their end of the bargain by coming within three points of their record winning margin in Europe with a 56-3 triumph, it all ended in disappointment.

Leinster and Scarlets, both with nothing to play for, offered little resistance against Wasps and Northampton respectively but hope had flickered briefly for Ulster elsewhere.

A late George Ford penalty for Bath against Toulon drifted off target when a successful attempt would have given the Premiership side a lead in the final minutes while Leicester Tigers scored first, and went blow for blow early on, against Stade Francais before ultimately falling short.

As it was, with Clermont and Ospreys both losing yesterday, Rory Best and co were left knowing that just one more point would have seen them in the last eight.

Paired with competition favourites Saracens for the third season in four, Ulster were soundly beaten at home by the north Londoners in their opening pool game back in November while the rematch two Saturdays ago also yielded no return.

Two wins in France against Toulouse and Oyonnax - having won just twice across the Channel prior to this campaign - were notable achievements but such is the level of competition now in Europe's top tier that the failure to bring home all five points on either occasion also contributed to their exit.

As such, there will have been a downcast mood when Ulster's squad gathered yesterday to bid farewell to their departing Six Nations participants but plenty impressed against poor opposition on Saturday.

Jared Payne, starting at fullback for the second week in a row after making his return from injury, was a cut above in the 15 jersey while even a change in the centre pairing couldn't diminish the impact offered from midfield.

Luke Marshall was again superb while Darren Cave, in for Stuart McCloskey, made a try-scoring return.

With Chris Henry missing again, Sean Reidy provided more evidence of his rapid progression while Nick Williams and Robbie Diack also caught the eye alongside him.

Even if it was all ultimately for nought, Les Kiss will have been heartened by the displays ahead of a run of six imperative PRO12 games between now and the conclusion of the Six Nations in mid-March.

Ulster showed their intent early on when they went for the corner with Oyonnax caught not releasing. A high tackle on Cave produced another penalty and Paul Marshall's quick tap and go had the Top 14 side scrambling.

Rob Herring was on hand to barge over and, with Paddy Jackson's conversion, Kiss' men had the perfect start.

Things weren't going all their own way, and after losing Kyle McCall to injury, Rory Clegg provided three points off the tee with Cave pinged for holding on.

Ulster were across the whitewash again soon after when a trademark Williams break drew Oyonnax's defensive line out of shape for Marshall to feed Herring. The hooker's inside ball set a charging Payne in to space and Cave was on hand to finish.

With more than 10 minutes of the half remaining, the naturalised Kiwi was again heavily involved with a sublime pass to put Luke Marshall clear.

The recently recalled Irish centre had Jackson on his inside with the out-half finding Rory Scholes - on for only a matter of minutes thanks to an Andrew Trimble blood injury - to score.

The bonus-point try came shortly after when Reidy crashed his way over from close range and Jackson converted for a 28-3 lead at the interval.

The second-half began in the same vein and a Luke Marshall wraparound seemed set to provide another score.

The centre's run set Craig Gilroy away but when he tried to find his fellow wing Trimble, Florian Denos deflected.

It was quick thinking from Marshall to take the line-out at pace and Reidy was almost over himself before the ball was recycled and Trimble put Gilroy over in the corner.

Seven minutes later, a run from Reidy advanced the ball and, after consultation with the TMO, Marius Mitrea adjudged that Diack had got over.

Ian Humphreys - who came on for Jackson - converted and added one of his own soon after with a solo run and Ulster's seventh score.

There was still 20 minutes remaining when Payne completed the rout but come yesterday evening, the province were left with only the PRO12 to focus on.

Belfast Telegraph

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