Coach Mark Anscombe attributed Saturday’s hard-earned win to the character shown by his heavily depleted squad in digging deep into their reserves of commitment and pride in becoming the first Ulster side to have won a competitive game in France.
Under Anscombe, Ulster have a 100% record on French soil, for in the Kiwi’s first match in charge Bayonne were beaten 20-15 in a pre-season friendly at Parc des Sports Jean Dauger.
That night he was able to make numerous changes. Saturday at Stade Pierre Antoine was very different, though.
In hailing the attitude and spirit Ulster showed, the coach said: “I really think the character of the team came through. It’s no secret they we had 12 to 14 guys out for one reason or another, but this group just hung in there. It was tough.
“We only made two changes, one forced through injury. It was hard on the other guys on the bench that they weren’t brought in but it wasn’t a game to be making changes. We needed to stay settled and to keep our discipline. I thought they did that very well.”
The enforced change was the withdrawal of No 8 Roger Wilson in the 28th minute.
Asked about Wilson’s latest setback, Anscombe confirmed: “He’s just tweaked that hamstring again. We got him off quickly as a precautionary thing so hopefully it won’t be too bad. By getting him off we were hoping not to add to it. Hopefully it’s not going to be another 12 weeks.”
For the third successive Heineken Cup game, Anscombe found himself delivering a hard half-time talk with his side trailing 8-6.
“I need a rest from those. I need a glass of red wine to settle my nerves,” he smiled before giving a blunt analysis of what was a disappointingly disjointed opening 40 minutes.
“First half we were poor in our option-taking. We gave away too much ball and we weren’t putting any pressure on them,” he admitted.
“Our lineout wasn’t functioning, though our scrum was working really well, and we were going too high in the tackle and giving them soft yards.
“But that all changed in the second half. We were putting them on the deck, pressurising them and forcing them to make mistakes.
“Bottom line is that we’re into the last eight — we knew that before today — and we’ve ticked another box. Without front-line players, this group came here and did something that no Ulster team before has done.
“No matter what any of these guys do after this, that is something nobody will ever be able to take away from them. You could see the passion in them when they sang the song back in the dressing room. Today is something they’ll never forget.”
Singling out replacements Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson, he said: “I thought both guys had big games, which is pleasing for them before setting off for national camp.”
Hooker Rory Best said: “I have been involved in Ulster teams and we have played very well in the first half and when a few things go badly for us in the second half, we roll over — that could have happened us here.
“It wasn't our best performance of the season by any stretch of the imagination, but you have to take your hats off to the boys for the way they went about their business in the second half.
“Everything was not just a couple of per cent off, we were probably 10 or 15pc off. The important thing for us is that we stood up. Even after losing the first line-out of the second half, we still competed. Sometimes you lose ones like that, but then to come back... we won a lot of crucial line-outs in the second half.”