Victory so magnifique for Ulster
Montpellier 8 Ulster 25: In the countdown to Saturday's Heineken Cup clash with Montpellier at Stade Yves du Manoir, hooker Rory Best had made it plain that Ulster were not travelling to southern France on a damage limitation exercise.
"If you want to win the European Cup you have to go away to top teams and win there," he insisted. And although the pre-match feedback from most of the sizeable number of Ulster supporters who made the trip was that a losing bonus would be a good result, Best did not think so.
"If this was a quarter-final we wouldn't be talking about getting a bonus. We want four points from this game – that's the mentality we have to have," Best said.
Significantly it was Best who was the man in the middle of three on-field Ulster huddles in the final 30 minutes before kick-off, reminding comrades of what would be required of them a short time later, steeling their resolve, willing them on.
Whatever words he used, they lit the touchpaper, for Ulster trounced opponents who went into this game sharing top spot in the much-vaunted Top 14 and boasting a highly impressive home record.
European champions Toulon held them to a draw at the start of the season following which Brive, Toulouse, Clermont and Oyonnax were seen off. Not only did Ulster become the first guests to have beaten Montpellier on their own ground this season, they are the first visiting side ever to have ended a Heineken Cup game as winners at this venue.
What a scalp to have taken and how richly deserved. And what an advert for the PRO12 with Mark Anscombe's side having beaten English champions, Leicester Tigers, and Top 14 joint-leaders Montpellier in the space of eight days.
Having slipped into a 3-0 deficit when Jonathan Pelissie kicked a straightforward fifth minute penalty, Ulster's response was to seize the initiative through a glorious try from Andrew Trimble.
Fellow-wing Tommy Bowe again showed the handling skills he perfected as a child playing gaelic football in Monaghan. Full-back Jared Payne took the wing's pass, outside-centre Darren Cave was next to show and his feed to Trimble opened the French defence. Bowe, who had continued his run, held his partner's pass back inside, before returning the compliment, enabling Trimble to finish.
Paddy Jackson converted and with 11 minutes gone Ulster were 7-3 to the good. It was a lead they never surrendered, for even though they left nine points on the pitch in the first half – man of the match Ruan Pienaar missed a 16th minute penalty which struck a post and was off target with another in the 27th minute, with a Jackson miscue wedged between that pair – that profligacy never came back to haunt them.
After the break Pienaar kicked five out of five, with Jackson putting the icing on the cake with another right on full-time.
The hosts' muted response was a TMO-confirmed try in the corner by left wing Yoan Audrin which cut Ulster's advantage to 10-8 with 50 minutes on the clock. But that was to be their lot; in the final half-hour, Ulster did not yield a point. They did, however, add 15 of their own.
Their line-out was spot-on throughout, with Best's throwing to his skipper, Johann Muller, the stand-out feature of that set-piece. In the loose, Ulster's forwards were quite magnificent, repeatedly providing ball which invited their halves, Pienaar and Jackson, to hoist probing, punishing kicks which caused problems for the home side all afternoon, with the chasing of Bowe, Trimble and Payne repeatedly caused panic and forcing errors from their traumatised opposite numbers.
In brief, the French were out-thought, out-fought and out-played by opponents who had identified weaknesses and exploited them remorselessly. And in Welsh referee, Leighton Hodges, they had an official who refused to bow to the baying of the Montpellier supporters, standing firm and punishing every law violation he spotted.
No wonder Anscombe was a very happy man after the final whistle .
"I'm enormously proud of the guys the way they played. To come here and beat a team that hasn't been beaten at home this year is real satisfying," he told me.
"The pleasing thing is that we'd talked about how we wanted to play. We wanted to turn them around, we wanted to put the ball up in the air early and the guys did that and stuck to the game plan well.
"Our chasing game was excellent, our kicking game was excellent and the points accumulated.
"When you play a big pack like that you don't want to give them those early targets and you don't want to give them that go-forward. We managed to nullify that from their game."
In addition, having identified Montpellier's use of the line-out as a launch-pad, Ulster's ability to counter that robbed them of something on which they rely heavily. The guests' meticulous preparation and the time spent on homework paid off handsomely.
"We had to have them second-guessing themselves," Anscombe said. "We didn't want them being able to settle and control the tempo of the game. We wanted to be in control of that and I thought the boys did that to a tee."