Control of pool is Ulster's prize for defeating Bath
Ulster can open a path to seizing control of Heineken Pool 4 if they topple Bath at the Recreation Ground today.
That’s not the talk of a diehard Ulsterman but one of their fiercest rivals, Biarritz wing Iain Balshaw.
The former England full-back admits Ulster will join Biarritz as favourites to win the pool if they can complete the double over Bath this afternoon.
“They are definitely capable of winning at Bath and they will be looking very, very good in our group if they win that one,” Balshaw told me last night.
“If that happened, Bath would be totally out of it and we would still have to go to Ulster. We all know how tough that is going to be. But knowing Bath and Ulster as I do, I think it will be a very close game at the Rec.”
Balshaw formed a healthy respect for Brian McLaughlin’s side even though Biarritz ran up a 30 points win over the Ulstermen in the Basque country.
“In the first half they looked very well drilled, physical and fast. They looked a top quality side,” he said.
Biarritz went into last night’s pool match against Italian outfit Aironi with a mission. After their shock 28-27 defeat in Italy last weekend, Balshaw accepted only a five-point win — four for a win and a bonus point for four tries — would have been good enough to keep Biarritz on track as pool leaders.
And the ex-England man was scathing of his own club for their upset loss in Italy. “We didn’t show up at all and we didn’t respect the opposition when they had the ball.
“Our goal was to get four tries and we scored two early on. But we lost sight of the need actually to win the match. We made silly errors and the fact was Aironi wanted it more than us. They were more dynamic than us but we were lacklustre.
“We showed no physicality, were terrible at the breakdowns. We were complacent,” he said.
All this ought to be digested carefully by Ulster who are due to play Aironi in Italy next month. If Ulster were to win at Bath today and then beat Biarritz at Ravenhill, two tough tasks for sure but by no means impossible, then the match in Italy would become crucial.
But Balshaw insists Biarritz’s destiny remains in their own hands. “If we win our next three games, we qualify — it’s as simple as that,” he said.
“I think we have learned valuable lessons from last weekend in Italy. The years have gone when you could just turn up as the more powerful side and expect to stroll to victory.
“If you don’t get your preparation and especially your attitude right from the start, chances are you will be heading for a fall. Which is basically what happened to us last weekend.
“I’d say we played to about 70 per cent of our potential whereas Aironi were fantastic, especially their forwards.”
So Ulster have been warned. But it’s first things first for McLaughlin’s side. They can’t afford to let their minds wander from today’s tie at Bath. For the fact is, if they don’t win this one, Biarritz are likely to have a seven point pool lead and whatever happens at Ravenhill in the New Year when the French side visit will probably prove decisive in Pool 4.
Balshaw admits there is certainly all to play for this weekend. “Last weekend’s results have definitely thrown open this group. Both Ulster and Bath have still to play Aironi and despite our defeat to them last week, you would expect them to get five points each in those games.
“So that puts pressure on us to deliver in all our remaining matches.”
He added: “We can’t accept any more slip-ups against anyone. And we still have to go to Ulster. We know that will be a very, very tough fixture.”