Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Ancombe's high five can deal Ulster Rugby a winning hand

Ulster's John Afoa on his way to scoring a try
Ulster's John Afoa on his way to scoring a try

Ulster face a hard week's work ahead of Saturday's winner-takes-all Pool 5 clash with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.

In the immediate aftermath of Friday night's hard-earned 27-16 victory over Montpellier, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe had said he expected Leicester to beat Benetton Treviso at Stadio Monigo the following afternoon. The visitors duly won 34-19, scoring four tries and bagging five more points.

As a result of their weekend wins, both Ulster and Leicester are guaranteed places in the last eight. What remains to be decided is who gets the home tie for topping Pool 5, the reward for the winners of Saturday's now-crucial Welford Road clash.

Ulster go into that shoot-out as the only one of the 24 Heineken Cup runners with a 100% record – five wins out of five. A sixth pool-stage victory would give them top seeds status, as well as a home quarter-final.

Straight after Friday's win, Anscombe reiterated what he has said all along: "No matter what happened tonight it was always going to come down to what happens at Welford Road so nothing has changed."

Friday night's victory over a surprisingly motivated Montpellier second-string in front of 14,000 at Ravenhill revealed problems which must be rectified if Ulster are to achieve the result they want this weekend.

But it does show how far Ulster have come under Anscombe and the level of expectation that has been created when such a victory resulted in a missed bonus point becoming the focus, rather than the five straight wins achievement.

Opponents' mauling off the line-out is an Achilles heel, though. And on Friday the concession of 10 penalties enabled the guests' scrum-half Eric Escande to keep his side in touch and prevented Ulster from pulling so far clear as to be beyond reach.

Leading 14-3 after 27 minutes, Ulster conceded a try – rolling maul again, note – scored by Montpellier lock Robins Tchale Watchou and converted by Escande.

And when Ruan Pienaar nailed a 36th penalty, Escande replied in kind with the last kick of the first half.

The same was true in the third quarter, too, with the opposing scrum-halves once again trading penalties. But Montpellier did not score beyond the 50 minutes mark. Ulster, however, added only seven more points.

It could and should have been more.

With only 57 minutes on the clock when John Afoa powered home for try number three, Robbie Diack and Ruan Pienaar having struck for a quick-fire second-quarter brace, Ulster had ample time to add the all-important fourth touch-down.

Highlighting moments when they went tantalisingly close in the frantic final quarter during which they threw everything at their visitors, Anscombe recalled: "Michael Allen nearly went over, Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy had a squabble over the ball and Ruan Pienaar got held up, so we created a few but didn't take them."

A clearly groggy Gilroy exited immediately with a broken nose.

While Ulster went close, errors on their own part coupled with admirably resolute defence by their guests and the referee's view of what was happening conspired to deny them the requisite fourth try.

As for the concession of penalties, Anscombe admitted that Ulster are suffering as a result of self-inflicted wounds.

"Our discipline is hurting us a little bit," he said. "It's the lazy little penalties – entry from the side, not rolling away – that just allows teams to put us back in the corner and keeps them in the game by accumulating some points."

And then warning of the hefty tab Ulster could end up paying if they do the same against Leicester, Anscombe added: "We know next week they'll be more than happy to take three points (from goals) so we've just got to make sure our discipline is a little sharper and we take our game and play with confidence."

Anscombe's Tigers counterpart Richard Cockerill will go through Ulster's performance with a fine tooth comb and may well decide to target the scrum in the belief that there could be weaknesses to exploit.

Worryingly, Ulster lost three on their own ball against Montpellier, finishing with a success rate of just 67% in that set-piece.

That said, Ulster will hope Welsh whistler Nigel Owens referees the scrum rather more in keeping with their view of what is legal than was the case on Friday night at Ravenhill where England's Wayne Barnes repeatedly pinged the home props.

But in the final analysis, Ulster can negate all the complexities simply by wnning and that is not beyond them.

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