Tyrone Howe: Keep kicker at bay and it may be Ulster’s day
The opening weekend of the Heineken Cup almost ended up with a bagful of shocks, but rugby supporters throughout Europe saw once again that, ultimately, home advantage still counts for a lot.
It could have been so different and the competition would have been blown wide open had a few teams managed to close out their games.
Leicester Tigers almost saw their championship aspirations evaporate in Treviso, but somehow experience took them to the opposite end of the rugby spectrum in securing a bonus point win.
Northampton managed to overcome a bout of mediocrity to stay alive against Castres at Franklin Gardens, while Wasps were only inches away from the result of the weekend — the dethroning of the kings of Europe down in Toulouse.
The end result is that out of twelve matches in Round One, only two actually saw away victories — the Tigers in Treviso, and Biarritz against Bath, and neither could be said to have been that great a surprise. Away victories are still the Holy Grail of European rugby.
For this reason, bonus points are the next big thing, whether generated by four tries or a losing bonus point.
Clearly then, the Irish provinces made a bright start to their respective campaigns.
That last gasp try by Munster against London Irish was all too reminiscent of their opening match last year against Northampton and could be crucial come the return fixture.
It is also advantage Leinster as they seem to have discovered their form right when it counts and dispatched Heineken new boys Racing Metro.
Finally, it was the perfect start by Ulster and would certainly have handed a slight advantage to our boys, had Biarritz not recorded their one-point win at the Rec against Bath.
Nonetheless, Brian McLaughlin will be delighted with a four try victory over Aironi.
I wrote last week that a five pointer was needed and the players delivered, while still leaving room for improvement this weekend.
All you can do is influence the outcome of the games that you are directly involved in, rather than worry too much about what is happening in the rest of the Pool.
The Ulster players knew coming into the competition that they would have to record some formula of away victories to qualify for the knock-out stages — Biarritz’s away victory so early in the tournament simply reinforces this position.
What last weekend also proved is that, when the margins are this tight, kickers have to nail any opportunities at penalties, conversions and drop goals.
While Dimitri Yachvili steered Biarritz to victory, Northampton’s campaign almost came off the rails because of atrocious misses, and David Skrela was the key man for Toulouse.
The Biarritz scrumhalf will be the prime target of Ulster’s challenge if they are to beat last year’s finalists.
Stop Yachvili and you have a good chance of stopping Biarritz.
This presents Ulster with two particular challenges: discipline is vital in order to restrict the number of penalty opportunities, while Ulster’s forwards must dominate their opposite numbers to slow down the flow of quick ball to the potentially inspirational number nine.
Normally, one would worry about both these aspects. However, Ulster’s discipline has improved enormously this season, helped to a large extent by the new refereeing directive that has seen the tackle area become less contested.
Ulster’s pack, particularly if BJ Botha and Stephen Ferris make it back in time, are in tremendous shape. They are more than capable of holding their own in the scrums, while Johann Muller’s presence in the lineout has been a key factor in Ulster’s success thus far.
Ruan Pienaar has given the Ulster faithful a taste of his ability, but this amuse-bouche needs to become the main course.
Great players rise to the occasion when it matters — the defining trait of Brian O’Driscoll’s career — and one hopes Pienaar will be no different.
After such a decent start, the wider rugby fraternity is starting to believe that Ulster really does have the ability to deliver its first victory on French soil.
The big question is whether the players themselves believe.
Since the start of the season Ulster are still the only unbeaten team in Europe and there is no reason to fear this journey.
This match is clearly incredibly important, but for the players and coaches, it provides a gauge, a litmus test, of just how far this side has come in the last few months.