Ulster should remember the maxim of top European soccer teams engaged in two-legged ties of the knock-out stages. “We’ve only got to half time” they tell themselves, at the end of the first leg.
Saturday’s victory over Stade Francais represented a good outcome to the first leg of this Heineken Cup round. But Brian McLaughlin’s side would be mad to dwell for too long on their Ravenhill success. It will be tougher, even tougher in Brussels this coming weekend for at least three key reasons.
Another Ulster win would propel them convincingly clear at the top of pool four with qualification then within their grasp. A quarter-final place for Stade would no longer be in their own hands and the Frenchmen know that.
Secondly, Ulster has never beaten Stade away from home in the history of the Heineken Cup. They have journeyed four times and come up short on every occasion. Twice they’ve been hammered — 40-11 and 30-10 — and twice they have been desperately close, losing 13-10 and 24-19 last year.
Even though Saturday’s match is on neutral territory in Belgium as part of Stade’s desire to spread the rugby gospel and their own club image across their national border, it will still be an away fixture for Ulster because it’ll be in alien territory.
But there is a third and maybe most crucial reason why Ulster need to focus afresh this morning and put Saturday’s win right out of their minds. Stade were left seething by their defeat at Ravenhill.
Like another French club, Perpignan, in Munster the previous night, they cursed an English referee as well as their opponents.
Some of the Stade players came off distinctly second best in the physical exchanges and that hurt French pride.
For sure, there will be some ‘afters’ in this Saturday’s match. Nor should Ulster make the mistake of believing the citing of French international scrum half Julien Dupuy for attacking Stephen Ferris’s face and his very likely suspension, weakens Stade that much.
South African Neil Oelschig, who came on as a second half replacement at Ravenhill for fly half Lionel Beauxis, gave Stade much more impetus going forward. Oelschig can be equally dangerous at scrum half and will need close watching wherever he plays. He’s very likely to start the game this time, whatever the outcome of Dupuy’s hearing.
I think the key to next Saturday’s tie is firstly, whether the Ulster forwards can again produce sufficient quality ball, recycled fast enough to give their backs chances and secondly, whether Ulster hold their nerve and continue their open, attacking approach behind the scrum.
The club game has been so poor in France this season and attacking play in such short supply, that teams are no longer used to opponents attacking them, especially from deep. The French national team showed this when they were blitzed by New Zealand in Marseille last month and Ulster did something similar on Saturday, scoring both their tries from their own 22.
That must continue to be Ulster’s game plan this weekend. If they adopt a more conservative approach and shun such risk-taking, they will play into Stade’s hands.
Again it will come down to the battle up front and what sort of ball the Ulster pack can secure. Chris Henry and his forwards did a superb job on Saturday and Ian Humphreys orchestrated the perfect approach in the back line.
It will take a lot of courage for Ulster to take that same philosophy to Brussels and see it through. When you travel, inhibitions seem to become instantly attached to your luggage. But if Ulster keep their cool and their convictions, they will give themselves a real chance of a prized double.