Tyrone Howe: Right attitude will get Ulster over the line
IT may only have been by three points, but Ulster’s victory over Biarritz was one of their best and most sustained performances this season.
It wasn’t pretty and some may argue that it may not have been a match for the purist. Au contraire, mes amis — the first forty minutes were as pure as it gets.
Why? Because Ulster showed exactly how you should play when you’re staring into the driving wind and rain.
You couldn’t help but admire the controlled, organised and disciplined fashion in which Ulster managed to cope with the challenging conditions and starve Biarritz of the ball.
I had a real sense of déjà vu, as several years ago I can remember watching one of Brian McLaughlin’s successful Schools’ Cup winning sides playing exactly the same way.
Do the simple things well, retain the ball and kick little away, defend for your life and keep your discipline.
Yet, it is a mark of how far McLaughlin has come as a coach and how empowered the players felt, that when it was on to move the ball wide they did exactly that and with some aplomb.
The men in white came up with the two main try-scoring chances of the first-half and while the scores didn’t materialise, it was reassuring that it wasn’t white line fever that held them back this time, rather Biarritz’s excellent scramble defence, mainly through Ian Balshaw.
Nonetheless, it kept the ball at the right end of the pitch.
Ulster were also helped by the fact that mentally Biarritz seemed to be still on the plane. Hooker, Benoit August, said during the week that the French players would arrive at Ravenhill like commandos.
However, I have never seen a team take the pitch in such a rag tag manner — more Pambo than Rambo.
The players emerged in ones and twos and there seemed to be a complete lack of togetherness. I wondered whether this might manifest itself on the pitch and particularly in that opening quarter they were all over the place.
Discipline and defence made the difference.
Firstly, Ulster restricted the most dangerous man on the pitch, Dimitri Yachvili, to six points.
Secondly, Biarritz could easily have slammed the door shut on Ulster in the final quarter had it not been for the most resolute and united defence.
Instead Ian Humphreys broke French hearts, but far more importantly, sent everyone into raptures.
His late, late penalty was a kick full of composure and confidence.
How often has younger Humphreys been compared to big brother?
David was always going to be a tough act to follow, but Ian nailed his own place in Ulster rugby history with a magnificent penalty and was worthy of the Man-of-the-Match award.
There were other heroes, none more so than the rampaging Dan Tuohy.
The big second row got through a huge amount of work, carried the ball well, was quick on his feet and had a moment of remarkable skill.
He was more like a Harlem Globetrotter in flicking the ball
one-handed back into play for Adam D’Arcy to show his own improvisation skills in kneeing the ball further and threatening the Biarritz tryline. Further Ireland honours must surely be on the horizon.
The match was a clear example that wind in your favour does not necessarily guarantee points. You have to be even more precise, especially in your kicking. While the boot of Damien Traille endured rather then enjoyed the afternoon at Ravenhill, Ruan Pienaar employed far greater control and put in his best performance in an Ulster shirt to date.
The biggest challenge that McLaughlin now has is to ensure that the players acknowledge that Biarritz is history and react accordingly.
Standing on the cusp of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals must be incredibly exciting yet enormously difficult. You can almost touch, it but it’s still out of reach.
If Ulster show the same attitude they’ve had in their last three Heineken matches, I have no doubt that they will overcome Aironi.
However, there is no such thing as a foregone conclusion in rugby. More than anyone else, the players know how much effort it has taken to get to this point. They will not allow themselves to be denied.