Ulster Rugby take it to the max in push for Europe
Published 16/12/2013 | 09:30
So, all is looking good again and Ulster are in pretty good shape as Europe slips off their immediate agenda until mid-January.
They sit top of Pool five, with four wins from four and 10 highly valuable points bagged from the back-to-back games with Treviso, the weekend's maximum haul coming their way after Jared Payne trotted over in dying minutes of Saturday's fog-laden game in northern Italy.
A home quarter-final is beckoning and yet, looming over everything, is the very real prospect that their final pool game against Leicester Tigers – now three behind after their last-gasp non-bonus win at Montpellier – at Welford Road is the occasion which will define and shape much that will follow.
Right now, though, Ulster are in a good place. They have come through what seemed like another of those damaging injury crises with two thumping wins over Treviso and, earlier, Edinburgh in the PRO12 which they return to on Friday night at Ravenhill when Zebre – yes the fourth straight game against an Italian side – provide the opposition.
Anyway, back to Saturday, and you had to spare a thought for the television match official (TMO), Trevor Fisher, sitting in his eyrie and entirely dependent on camera shots to make his calls which would all have been fine if there hadn't been rather a lot of fog around the place.
Referee Greg Garner went upstairs on several occasions – well, what else could he do? The unfortunate Mr Fisher then found himself peering at, well, shapes moving around in somewhat less than revealing ways.
One big call certainly had a bearing on how the game panned out after the, once again, excellent Payne's kick through was got by Luke Marshall in the 37th minute for what appeared to be a try.
With the scores tied at 3-3 and Ulster having hardly shown much sign of doing what they needed to do – namely follow-up the previous week's 48-0 tanking of Trevsio with something similar – Mr Garner called up to his TMO and wondered if Marshall had been ahead of Payne when the latter's kick had been put through.
It looked like one of those 'hide behind the sofa moments' as the angle that Mr Fisher required seemed to be shrouded in the soup that had engulfed Stadio Monigo. But, thankfully, the TMO came through for us and Ulster were on their way – in fairness, having seen the score several times, Marshall's outline, yes outline, does seem to be behind Payne.
Anyway, leaving the TMO's problems aside, his call just before half-time gave Ulster the propulsion they needed at just the right moment.
Up to that point, things hadn't exactly looked too healthy and doubtless Mark Anscombe was looking on and just hoping that Ulster's error count wouldn't undo them before the half-time whistle.
But, courtesy of a big Ulster squeeze at scrum-time – credit due to the visitors' front five here – and a penalty, Ulster took control of the ball with the net result that Payne created the chance for Marshall which was reminiscent of the previous week when he did the same for Ulster's second try, that time courtesy of one of those dazzling runs that are becoming a bit of a trademark for the Kiwi.
With the score now 8-3 to Ulster – Jackson missed the difficult and probably only partially visible attempt at bisecting the posts – there was hardly much breathing space but then, just on half-time, Jackson nailed a penalty to take their lead to eight points, bringing the white shirts a spring to their step as they trooped off.
Now it was over to Treviso. They needed to score first, but didn't and Jackson's 46th minute penalty now made it an 11-point lead for Ulster, not enough to feel entirely secure but sufficient to bring Anscombe's men that extra belief while leaving the Italians facing a climb which already looked too steep for their resources to manage.
And just before the hour mark, it all began to unravel for the home team. Darren Cave had been having a fairly quiet game by his own standards when he threw a terrific back-handed flip to his right which was meant to pick out the onrushing Craig Gilroy for a seemingly certain score.
Instead, the ball was snaffled by Brendan Williams but still ended up with Gilroy dumping Luke McLean over his own line meaning that Treviso had coughed up a five-metre scrum to the opposition.
You sensed a big moment was coming and indeed it was as Williams – going for the skip pass intercept from Ruan Pienaar to Andrew Trimble – was given 10 minutes in the bin, reducing Treviso's resources just when they needed a full deck out on the park.
And though the Italians did well to stem Ulster's driving maul, which came from the penalty being kicked to the corner, they couldn't relieve the pressure.
The net result was another penalty to Ulster and from the scrum the visitors chose to take, Gilroy scooted over on the left courtesy of a Payne assist against a 14-man defence.
With Jackson's conversion making it 21-3, there could now be no doubting the final result and Ulster's commitment to go all-out for the bonus point.
Luke McLean's yellow card merely added to Treviso's difficulties and though the game lost some structure due to the inevitable substitutions, Robbie Diack's try meant that Ulster had to go all out for the fourth try.
Not that Payne's 78th minute score was a foregone conclusion, far from it as Ulster were made to work hard to defend their line late on, but after Trimble showed that he can flick balls off the ground it was fitting that the influential Kiwi got that all-important bonus and that the TMO had yet another fog-bound call to make.