Paddy Jackson seals Ulster's stirring fightback in Oyonnax win
Oyonnax 23 - Ulster24
Ulster produced the most memorable of comebacks to save their European season yesterday as the province overturned a 23-0 deficit to beat Oyonnax by a solitary point.
Out-half Paddy Jackson, who came on at half-time, was the hero as he nailed a late penalty from the halfway line after tries from Rory Scholes, Craig Gilroy and Kyle McCall.
The lengthy matchwinner, which came with just four minutes to go, had more than enough distance, and saw Jackson respond in the best possible fashion to missing a testing penalty with the game on the line against Munster just last week.
A fourth ever win in France, and second of the season, keeps Ulster on course for a quarter-final place. Heavily favoured entering the game, nothing clicked in the first-half with the hosts good value for their advantage.
With Ulster a different team after the turn, the game hinged on the half-time introductions of Jackson, Ruan Pienaar and Nick Williams.
Oyonnax themselves had chopped and changed, concerned more with a domestic relegation battle, but the hosts started on the front foot.
With former Ulster favourite Pedrie Wannenburg to the fore, they dominated early possession with only a pair of knock-ons undermining their efforts. The latter error gave Ulster a scrum but the visitors' set-piece was decimated.
The resulting penalty on a back-pedalling Roger Wilson saw the ball sent to the corner and produced the first score.
A well executed rolling maul allowed George Robson to claim the lineout and Jeremie Maurouard was driven over. The hooker was prominent again soon after when bursting past Ricky Lutton to make a break upfield.
Dug Codjo went for the line with a kick ahead and, while Ulster stopped him short, the attack earned a penalty.
Former Welsh international Nicky Robinson, having already nailed the tough conversion of the try, made no mistake.
With Ulster's scrum in a perilous state, two further penalties from the out-half stretched the lead to 16.
Sam Arnold's afternoon was ended prematurely with a hamstring injury, the youngster replaced by Louis Ludik, but the final five minutes of the half saw Ulster at least threaten the scoreboard.
A measured grubber from Gilroy saw Ulster pile over the top for an effective counter ruck but Robbie Diack lost the ball as he tried to get over.
Back in the opposing 22 soon after, a Paul Marshall pass skidded into the hands of winger Uwa Tawalo who sprinted into the clear.
A raised fist in celebration long before touching the ball down reflected Oyonnax's level of comfort as they carried a 23-0 lead into the break.
Calvary in the shape of Pienaar, Jackson and Williams came at half-time and it took only three minutes for their impact to show.
Stuart McCloskey carried strongly but there was still plenty for Scholes to do. The wing showed a burst of pace to run away from Julien Blanc and around Quetin Etienne before finishing smartly.
As Jackson drilled the conversion between the posts, hope flickered. A vast improvement in the scrum was evident but, with a set-piece on the five-metre line, the pack could not force a second.
With the game nearing its final quarter, Ulster had plenty of possession, and a line-out in the corner, but could gain no headway.
When Ulster turned down a kickable penalty soon after, the outcome was fruitful.
Another strong contribution from Scholes gave Pienaar the opportunity for a quick tap and go with the subsequent move, featuring slick interplay among the backs, seeing Gilroy over strongly.
When McCall snatched the opportunity for a third after Rory Best was stopped short, the improbable rescue was a kick away from completion.
Nerves were shredded in the final moments, no more so than when Jackson approached the penalty from his own half, but it sailed over. Having battled back, Ulster could still even have lost.
A scrum deep inside the opposing half gave Oyonnax a glimmer but, as fit and able bodies were decreasing, Ulster's forwards held firm to secure the four points that had seemed lost just 40 minutes prior.
Oyonnax: Q Etienne; D Codjo, A Taufa, E Sheridan, U Tawalo; N Robinson, J Blanc; L Delboulbes, J Maurouard, M Clerc; G Robson, F Metz; P Gunther, M Fa'asavalu, P Wannenburg.
Replacements: T Bordes (for Maurouard, 53), S Wright (for Blanc, 62), H Pungea (for Metz, 60) , G Fabri, V Ma'afu (for Gunther, 60), A Aziza, R Clegg (for Robinson, 55), D Ikpefan
Ulster: C Gilroy; S Arnold, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Scholes; I Humphreys, P Marshall; K McCall, R Best (captain), R Lutton; L Stevenson, F van der Merwe; R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson.
Replacements: R Herring (for Best, 75), C Black (for McCall, 79), B Ross (for Lutton, 79), N Williams (for Stevenson, 40), Sean Reidy (for Ludik, 75), R Pienaar (for Marshall, 40), P Jackson (for Humphreys, 40), L Ludik (for Arnold, 23)
Star man: Ruan Pienaar (above)