Tyrone Howe: Ulster’s smash and grab will leave a lasting bonus
A home win to the tune of 41 points to 17 may not sound much like a smash and grab for Ulster, but at the end of a second half that felt more like a marathon, this is exactly how their opponents will have felt.
It may not have been victory that Ulster nabbed at the end — Paul Marshall’s second try early in the second half pretty much wrapped that up — but the players snaffled the bonus point under the noses of the French with Ruan Pienaar’s cool finish for the fourth try.
Come the middle of January, who knows just how important this extra point may prove to be.
Castres have only themselves to blame.
By continuing to play in the dying seconds of the game rather than getting the ball off the pitch, they helped to scuttle their own ship rather than limping back to dock to undergo repairs and prepare for their next game.
Coming into the game the Castres coaches showed their stereotypical idiosyncratic, ie bonkers, nature by making numerous changes from their team that had toppled Clermont the week before and inexplicably left their two key players on the bench.
Rory Kockott is the current top points scorer in the Top 14 and we saw the physical and confrontational impact of Joe Tekori when he took the pitch.
That said, Ulster played with such pace and precision in the first half that Sky commentator Dewi Morris stated that they were ‘playing a style that is difficult to live with’.
It was indeed a highly impressive opening 40 minutes. The ball was fizzing through the hands, everyone playing their part with offloads unlocking defensive doors — the supporters were purring with delight.
The late withdrawal of Stephen Ferris added to the absence of Nick Williams created question marks over Ulster’s ability to break the gain line and impose themselves physically on the opposition.
This enforced situation caused the opportunity and need for others to show character and real leadership skills. How the back row responded.
Had Paul Marshall not contributed a five star performance, Chris Henry would surely have been Ulster’s man of the match with a combination of ball-carrying, kick off returns, big tackles, turnovers and running great dummy lines, for example in the first half his burst outside Paul Marshall focused the Castres defensive eyes, only for Tommy Bowe to come on a disguised angle for a dashing break.
Henry set a standard which allowed his teammates to cause all sorts of problems for the opposition.
He was ably assisted by Michael McComish and Iain Henderson.
The latter put in one of the most impressive displays of the night, showing skill, pace, technical nous and a dogged Ulster way.
Castres had neither the skills nor style to disrupt Ulster, however their pack went on the offensive in the second half and managed to stifle the attack by slowing the ball down, dominating possession and taking on the pack.
It paid dividends as it disrupted Ulster’s flow and decision-making.
Without the go forward up front Ulster still tried to move the ball wide, a precarious pursuit which invariably broke down.
This will give hope to other teams in terms of how to play against Ulster, but in itself it is a limited gameplan.
The longer the game went on, the more we saw what Ulster were missing without the physical presence of Ferris and Williams. Someone needed to put Tekori in his place but there will be another opportunity for that.
For the final try that triggered sighs of relief all over Ravenhill the depth of the squad made an impact.
It was a classy finish from Pienaar, but Luke Marshall deserves huge credit. He showed nerve, composure and no lack of skill to hold the ball up and make that final pass.
The job got done but a 45 minute performance leaves much room for improvement and there will be no complacency in facing an incredibly tricky fixture against Glasgow.
It was dramatic, nerve-jangling, heart-in-mouth stuff, but that’s the beauty of the Heineken Cup, and it started at Ravenhill.