Ulster 30 Aironi 6: Ulster are off to a winning start in the Heineken Cup following a second half demolition of plucky but outclassed Aironi at Ravenhill last night.
While Ulster have not progressed beyond the group stage since 1999, they do have the distinction of being one of only four Heineken Cup ever-presents since the competition’s inception in 1995/96.
In addition, in four previous Heineken Cup matches against Italians — in each case Benetton Treviso — Ulster emerged triumphant.
Pitted against that 100 per cent record and their 16 seasons of experience were Aironi, making their Heineken Cup debut. Thus they arrived at Ravenhill cast in the role of rank outsiders and odds on to finish bottom of Pool 4.
In contrast, Ulster, who had beaten them 22-15 four weeks earlier in the Magners League, in Italy, were quoted last night at a remarkable 1/33. Clearly the bookmakers, like the crowd of 7,777, expected a rout.
Ulster’s start suggested that belief was justified, with Ruan Pienaar first winning and then kicking a 2nd minute penalty following a glorious passage of slick passing
at speed. Even then Ian Humphreys looked to be in the mood.
But Aironi’s first incursion into home territory yielded a penalty which Ludovic Mercier kicked from wide on the left to level the scores, following which he and then Pienaar missed further opportunities, the Ulster scrum-half’s effort from 30 metres coming back off an upright.
On 18 minutes, though, the Aironi player was on target with an Aquinas End beauty which gave the guests a 6-3 lead as the first quarter drew to a close.
It didn’t last long. An awesome Ulster scrum on Aironi’s put-in saw them win a heel against the head in the guests’ 22 and when Robbie Diack picked up at the tail and then passed to Pienaar, the pivot cleverly tapped the ball on to Andrew Trimble who finished in style.
Pienaar fluffed his conversion attempt, but there were positives. The line-out was functioning better than on any previous occasion this season, with Johann Muller quite majestic in his aerial ball-winning.
Pedrie Wannenburg was involved in everything in the loose, ditto Diack.
Paddy Wallace was buzzing in midfield and the excellent Jamie Smith always posed a threat when he attacked from deep.
And when Aironi’s Italian international lock Marco Bortolami was yellow-carded in the 30th minute, Ulster were handed a golden opportunity to ram home their one-man advantage and go in at half-time in a comfortable position.
But they failed to grasp it. Instead, in their anxiety to capitalise, they made silly, unforced errors by trying to do things too quickly.
As a result, all they had to show for their numerical advantage was a second Pienaar penalty on the stroke of half-time — by which stage Bortolami had just rejoined the fray.
An 11-6 lead at the end of a half they had dominated was poor reward for their endeavour. Still, they would have the considerable breeze behind them when play resumed.
They got the start they sought when Aironi’s No8 made a complete mess in trying to deal with a speculative Humphreys kick to the corner, allowing the Ulster stand-off to get up and touch the ball down for a very soft second home try. Again, however, Pienaar’s conversion missed the mark — two from five.
Wallace then made a wonderful break, with three more pairs of Ulster hands involved in slick off-loads deep in the guests’ 22 as the hosts threatened again.
Ian Whitten replaced Darren Cave as Ulster tried to up it a gear. Superior in scrum and line-out and boasting much the better backs, a glut of scores and a bonus point beckoned.
On the hour they moved to within one try of that goal, turning a messed up line-out on half-way into an attack with Muller, Rory Best and Chris Henry in the vanguard down the right and Simon Danielli then finishing in the far corner. Humphreys converted — 23-6.
On 68 minutes Ulster bagged the bonus when, following yet more forward pressure, Pienaar went in under the posts to leave his half-back partner with a simple conversion to make it 30-6.