Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Slack Ulster Rugby will have to do it the hard way

Ulster's Dan Tuohy is tackled by Montpellier's Johnnie Beattie last night

What a game. It had a bit of everything really and yet the aftertaste isn't what we would have wanted. True, Ulster did win to make it five wins from five games but that bonus point, oh how we could have done with that.

Still, we knew this would end with a showdown at Leicester and now we've got it unless something bizarre happens at Treviso today.

It was so tense throughout. We waited for Ulster to explode from the outset but quickly realised that this just wasn't going to happen in quite the way we had hoped.

Yes, Ruan Pienaar was majestic and Andrew Trimble picked high balls out of the sky with aplomb while Jared Payne added more magic dust touches, but this was another of those arm-wrestles just when we didn't need it.

Instead, the hoped for game-plan went somewhat awry and all thoughts of an easy bonus point win over a considerably weakened Montpellier were quietly put away.

This was going to be another of those slogs and Ulster were just going to have roll up their sleeves and get on with it.

Their two rapid-fire tries in the first half – from Robbie Diack and Ruan Pienaar – lifted spirits but Montpellier weren't for just folding up their tents and wishing for the warmth of the showers.

They went toe-to-toe with Ulster and a typical moment came just after half-time when Pienaar kicked his side into a 20-13 lead. Yet again, Montpellier came back and Eric Escande replied in kind.

But worse followed on 55 minutes, after Jackson's chip through was butchered and Craig Gilroy left the field clearly dazed.

But this was the sort of game where anything could happen and in the blink of an eye, Ulster's fortunes had changed again.

The imperious Pienaar spotted space and kicked into it. Payne somehow got a flick of the ball and John Afoa was away for Ulster's third try.

Pienaar's conversion made it 27-16 and you could sense the bonus point was now there to be had. Surely it was coming? But then you began to wonder, after all this game had never been straightforward.

Firstly, Pienaar was held up over the line and then Michael Allen was just in touch as he reached for the line. It was drama, pure drama as even with the game in the bag, Ulster now came in waves seeking this vital fourth try.

And so it proved, Ulster threw everything at it but just couldn't cross the whitewash and we've to be content with four points and not five.

Indeed, from the outset, Ulster were rapidly on the back-foot and even conceded the first score after worryingly Ruan Pienaar had missed his first shot at goal.

Trailing 3-0 was never part of the plan nor was spending large amounts of time on the back foot while the French – and remember this wasn't anything close to their best line-up – came in waves and launched high kicks down Ulster's throat.

Montpellier had even managed to miss another penalty shot and a drop goal attempt before Ulster produced something out of nothing just when it mattered.

We had reached that point in the game when, ideally, the home side had planned to have taken full control – namely the 20th minute mark – when after Nick Williams had taken it up off a scrum, Paddy Jackson launched an inch perfect cross-kick to Robbie Diack over on the left wing.

The flanker took the ball at full pelt and smashed through Lucas Dupont to make the line in the left corner. The TMO was called in and the score awarded with Pienaar's stunning conversion adding the icing to the cake.

Their 7-3 lead soon became 14-3 after Pienaar's kick over the top caused mayhem and allowed the scrum-half get on the end of a bobbling ball. He again added the extras and Ulster looked well on their way.

However, it wasn't to be and Ravenhill was left stunned after Charles Geli broke free and second row Robins Tchale Watchou burst through to score. Escande's conversion made it 14-10 and a worrying time returned for Ulster.

Pienaar tried to settle the nerves with his 35th minute penalty, but, yet again, the French made hay after Alexandre Bias was taken out at a lineout and the half ended with Escande bisecting the posts and Ulster only leading by four.

Ah well, we kind of knew this was coming. Ever since the fixtures were rolled out, next Saturday's game has been a magnet for discussion over its pool-deciding potential and now, here we all are, with a trip to Welford Road the only thing standing between Ulster and topping the group though.

This time, the home quarter-final is there should Mark Anscombe's men get the win.

Leaving aside the unlikely event of Leicester Tigers tripping up at Treviso today, – unlikely but, of course, not impossible especially if you recall Aironi's stunning European win over Biarritz back in December 2010 – then what everyone is wanted is now awaiting on Saturday.

No-one really expects the Tigers to come up short and a bonus point over in northern Italy almost looks assured.

Strange things can happen, but the pragmatic approach is to expect the midlands side to still be still tucked in behind Anscombe's men after this afternoon.

So, the hype has already started for this 'cup final' with Ulster's evolution essentially demanding that they bring a quarter-final back to the virtually completed Ravenhill rather than have to go on the road again as they have done over the last three years with their stunning win at Munster – in 2012 – sandwiched between defeats to Northampton and Saracens.

Anyway, win banked and now it's all systems go for Welford Road.

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