Ulster 16 Clermont 11: The weekend past being the one when courage and sacrifice in pursuit of a noble objective are recognised, the familiar words spoken in 1940 by the country’s war-time leader sum up Ulster’s approach to Saturday’s Heineken Cup opener.
“Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival,” Winston Churchill famously told the House of Commons on May 13 of that year.
On the eve of Remembrance Sunday 2011, Ulster knew that they had to win because, if they were to survive in Europe, they dare not lose. Thus they went to the bottom of their reserves of stamina and character to dig out a crucial 16-11 victory against mighty ASM Clermont Auvergne.
Losing at home would have made qualification well-nigh impossible. Now, rather than being out of the running after one round, Ulster head for Leicester in the hunt and in the mood.
Their success was achieved by virtue of dogged determination exemplified by an outstanding display by the Ulster pack, with Stephen Ferris and Rory Best to the fore.
Ulster’s back line defence was hugely impressive, too.
The second half saw their kick-chase game improve by the minute. As a team they proved themselves to be tough mentally as well as physically.
Ulster grew into a match which did not start well for them. Early on they were full of jitters, under pressure and making mistakes. In truth they were fortunate only to be 5-0 down after the first 12 mistake-strewn minutes.
Had Morgan Parra been better of the tee, they would have been. But having missed a 2nd minute penalty he then failed to convert Noa Nakaitaci’s 7th minute try whereupon the kicking duties were handed to David Skrela.
He and his opposite number Ian Humphreys traded two penalties apiece, with the second of the Ulster stand-off’s brace crucially coming in the last kick of the first half to leave it 11-6 in the guests’ favour at the break.
Such was Ulster’s post-interval improvement that Clermont did not score again. The hosts, in contrast, bagged 10 points in the form of a third penalty by Humphreys who also scored and converted a try from nowhere, courtesy of replacement full-back Adam D’Arcy’s superlative break and perfectly-timed pass.
Last season D’Arcy was Ulster’s first-choice full-back. Then Jared Payne’s arrival saw him nudged back in the pecking order. And when the Kiwi ruptured his Achilles tendon, the number 15 jersey then went to Simon Danielli.
Now, with Payne out for the season, South Africa’s Stefan Terblanche has been recruited to replace him which means D’Arcy has dropped from first to fourth – this after being hailed as the club’s Most Improved Player at the Ulster Rugby Awards gala in May.
As Humphreys’ 16th point of the match split the posts at Ravenhill’s War Memorial end, you knew they would not be beaten. James Brock became Clermont’s third goal-kicker of the day but he fluffed two penalty attempts, leaving the French to reflect on a total of four misses off the tee – some 11 points.
Afterwards McLaughlin lauded his players for their magnificent efforts – and then promptly reminded them of what lies ahead.
“It was a 23-man effort and there’s absolutely no doubt that the guys are heroes. But there’s no point in turning in a display like that and the taking our eye off the money.
“We’ve got to go to Welford Road next week and we’ve got to turn in the same again,” he stressed.
But his pride and delight in the victory could not have been more obvious.
“We’re at home here at Ravenhill where we have a superb record in Europe. We’re very proud of our record and to add a team like Clermont to that list is phenomenal for us,” he smiled.
“It was a superb display. Yes, in the first half we made errors similar to the ones we made last week (against Connacht), but we are creating opportunities.
“We talked at half-time. We set down a very straightforward plan, the boys stuck to it and we got our rewards in the end. An unbelievable display from everybody.
“We knew from the first half that our scrum was A-okay,” he continued, whilst acknowledging that Ulster had “turned over vital line-out ball in crucial areas.”
“That’s something we have to keep working on and improving,” he admitted.
But he had no complaints about his side’s willingness and ability to front up to Clermont.
“The contacts out there were ferocious. You can’t fault our physicality out there tonight. We showed, in a huge game, that we can do it. Now it’s a matter of making sure that we kick on from that,” McLaughlin said.