Ulster up and running with Heineken Cup win over Connacht
Published 23/09/2013 | 01:30
Ulster's badly-needed first win of the season saw them breathe a huge sigh of relief before boarding their coach for the trip home from Galway on Saturday night.
The outcome against Connacht was a lot better than had looked probable at the end of another 40 minutes during which errors dogged Ulster's play once again.
But then, with a significant wind off Galway Bay behind them, they turned a 7-5 interval deficit into victory with 11 points to spare after scoring and converting a try in between a brace of penalties, while denying their hosts any second-half rewards.
With left-wing Michael Allen having scored a 15th minute try, in response to a Connacht touchdown by Dan Parks who added the extras to his own handiwork to open up a 7-0 lead after 11 minutes, out-half Paddy Jackson contributed all of Ulster's post-interval haul to finish with 13 points.
Results in three of Friday's four matches having gone in their favour, Ulster now are better-placed than had looked likely in the middle of last week.
After watching them register their first victory of 2013-14, coach Mark Anscombe's assessment of the previous night's upsets was: "You could quite comfortably have made the losers in all of last night's games your favourites to win. That's what this competition is about.
"I don't think you want to see teams racing away. I think you want to see week in, week out, that if you don't bring your 'A' game or you don't put a strong team on the park that you're going to open yourself up to be taken."
Ulster's Iain Henderson was the man of the match and Anscombe was happy to analyse the exciting 22-year-old's game.
Having started at lock alongside captain Johann Muller, he ended up playing blindside after Ulster began deploying their replacements in earnest during the final half-hour.
Lewis Stevenson's introduction at lock saw Henderson switch to fill the back row where he was joined by Robbie Diack who came on when Nick Williams and blindside Roger Wilson – who had another good night –were withdrawn.
Afterwards, while happy to applaud Henderson's verstality, Anscombe warned against trying to pigeon-hole him.
Asked if Henderson is an out and out second row his reply was: "Look, it's too early to say. He's a good athlete, he's a good footballer.
"I like him there (lock) at the moment; I just think as part of his growing and development it will teach him some good habits to go forward as a six.
"I suppose he'd like to think of himself as a six and I think that's where Joe (Schmidt, Ireland's coach, who attended the Sportsground inter-pro) sees him.
"I think he's a quality player. He's got power, he's big, he's young, he's mobile, so time will sort that out. But there's not those big men trucking around in Ireland all over the place, so he's a valuable asset.
"I think he'll do an admirable job in either. But just some of the speed and agility and movement, I think he needs to work on to master six.
"He's a powerful man, so when he gets hold of you he stops you. And I suppose there's some resemblence there of a young Stephen Ferris many years ago.
"He's a great prospect and I think we've just got to be careful.
"He's only 22, he's not the finished article, but we're going to start comparing him soon with all the best players and all that, so I think we've just got to keep our feet on the ground, nurture him and let him develop.
"I think if we do that right, you're going to have a fine prospect," Anscombe (right) forecast.
There was praise for another back row forward, too, for in highlighting Ulster's work at the breakdown against Connacht, the coach lauded his open-side flanker's contribution.
"It's an area we've done a lot of work on and I thought Chris Henry, who's had a slow start to the year, had a pretty good game out there today and that's good to see.
"He's back," Anscombe enthused.
With important PRO12 games against Treviso in Belfast and Ospreys in Swansea before home and away Heineken Cup dates with Aviva Premiership champions Leicester Tigers and on-fire French side Montpellier respectively, the Kiwi accepted that the coming schedule will really test his side's mettle.
"We've got two big games now, leading up to two even bigger games. You saw at the weekend what Montpellier did, so that's going to be an interesting one," Anscombe said.
That was a reference to the 43-3 hiding to which Clermont – last season's European Cup runners-up – were subjected by Ulster's Heineken Cup group rivals.
The good news is that he expects to have Lions pair Tommy Bowe and Rory Best back for Friday night's Ravenhill joust with the Italians. Centre Stuart Olding, could be available to face Treviso, too, ditto inspirational tight-head John Afoa.
Certainly Ulster could do with Afoa being fit to resume for Declan Fitzpatrick jarred his neck in Galway following a head-knock just before half-time.
After the game he was said to be suffering from a migraine.