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Ulster collapse to a new low after hammering in France

Toulon 60-22 Ulster

By Michael Sadlier

When it was all over, in terms of the moment Leighton Hodges blew for full-time that is, the Stade Felix Mayol's PA system pumped out AC/DC's Highway to Hell while a visibly battered and weary Ulster side made their way off.

The crowd-pleasing number wasn't directed at Ulster, but was aimed at sending Toulon's well-satisfied supporters out into the night with the hard rock anthem ringing in their ears while being already sated with what had taken place.

They had the assurance that their side had made the quarter-finals again as the French giants bid to be crowned champions for the third year in a row.

However, you couldn't help but wonder if Ulster's future in the streamlined Europe just might be heading somewhere in the direction of the song title being blasted out.

Maybe. From this wreckage there should have been overwhelming feelings of pessimism as rather glaring issues were thrown up.

After all, this was a record defeat for the men in white in terms of the total racked up against them, the last being the day that Wasps beat them 56-3 in the 1997-98 season.

And when you consider that this time 12 months ago, Ulster came off a field in France having turned Montpellier over on their own patch, and were one game away from an epic victory at Leicester Tigers to finish the pool stages winning six from six to bag a home quarter-final, only made Saturday's experience all the more depressing as they formally exited the competition.

From finishing top of their group last season, Ulster are now facing the reality of ending up bottom of Pool Three should they fail to defeat Leicester Tigers on Saturday evening never mind what Toulon do to the Scarlets, who are one point ahead of Neil Doak's battered squad, over in Wales.

It's been quite a fall and the way Toulon scorched away in the second half to nail down their first try bonus of the campaign was something to behold never mind the damage it was doing to an Ulster side now having an extremely makeshift looking backline.

Scrum-halves Michael Heaney and Paul Marshall were firefighting as best they could after the loss to injury of Louis Ludik (broken rib), Paddy Jackson (dislocated elbow) and Stuart Olding (arm/elbow issue).

And yet the strange thing was that despite the scoreline and the ramifications, Ulster were able to emerge with a semblance of credit and found it within themselves to keep battling to actually come away with a highly unlikely try bonus.

Though the pressure eventually told on their defence, it had been a hard-fought effort here with Mike McComish topping the tackle count with Alan O'Connor with 10 each.

Their set-piece was also largely solid while some of the attacking plays showed imagination and ambition.

And, once more, they were undone by injuries with three more players potentially being added to the list while Doak had to go into this clash without key players Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry, Nick Williams, Luke Marshall, Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson and Wiehahn Herbst, who are all still sidelined.

Jackson's score sat well alongside some of Toulon's best efforts and after McComish got over for his first of the day, off a driving maul, the visitors were right in the game and just trailing by 13-10 with Jackson missing both tricky conversions.

For the next 10 minutes, the French stars looked unsettled while their crowd fell silent until just after the half hour when, with Jackson lying on the turf injured and Ruan Pienaar not looking great after being hit on the ground, Toulon swept left to score.

Of course Bryan Habana made no effort to actually be behind Mathieu Bastareaud when he took the scoring pass but the try still stood.

Five minutes later and the game was up as Bastareaud rolled over the line despite Rob Herring's brave hit and with Leigh Halfpenny in lethal form, Ulster were suddenly 27-10 down as half-time was called.

You feared the worst for what would follow and after Jared Payne was held up over the line by Maxime Mermoz and Bastareaud, Toulon rolled out a play from the training paddock with Juan Smith peeling around the front of a lineout and giving Martin Castrogiovanni a sniff of the line, resulting in Toulon's targeted bonus try.

The ground erupted and it was now party on for the home side.

They duly delivered with Steffon Armitage getting his first and then replacement Mamuka Gorgodze smashing over after his team-mates launched a sweeping and irresistible move downfield.

It was then Armitage again from a rolling maul and at 55-10 - Halfpenny kept nailing the conversions - things looked distinctly bleak.

So, more credit to the visitors that they carried hard into Toulon's 22 for Payne to score another one chalked down to the TMO with the wait for McComish's first being interminable before McComish got the bonus off another maul and Pienaar converted.

At 55-22, Toulon just had to have the final say though when Armitage got his hat-trick and Halfpenny hit the post. Cue Highway to Hell.

Ulster player ratings

Jared Payne 6: Put in a promising display in a rare outing in the fullback’s jersey and finished strongly to grab Ulster’s third try of the contest.

Louis Ludik 5: Had helped take the fight to the hosts in the early stages but had to be removed before the half hour mark after taking a blow to the ribs.

Darren Cave 6: Making his 150th appearance, the centre contributed well, especially in the late scores that brought the bonus point.

Stuart Olding 5: Made a series of threatening breaks throughout his display before having to leave the field with Ulster’s third injury of the day.

Michael Allen 5: A relatively rare start, he made some determined carries but found himself forced into defensive action more often than not.

Paddy Jackson 6: Was in the process of continuing his bright return to form before being subbed off with what looked like yet another bad injury.

Ruan Pienaar 7: Could have been forgiven for wondering what might have been but showed his class, even playing behind a beaten pack.

Andrew Warwick 5: Up against the feted Martin Castrogiovanni, he had to dig deep but he showed up reasonably well all things considered.

Rob Herring 6: The stand-in hooker worked tirelessly in defence while Ulster’s lineout was a perfect 13 from 13.

Bronson Ross 5: May not have been envisaged as a starter when the season began but contributed well to the overall effort.

Alan O’Connor 6: Contributed well in the loose with some committed carries and was more than willing to put his body on the line in defence.

Franco van der Merwe 6: Irrespective of the circumstances, never seems to give less than 100% and that was the case during his hour on the pitch.

Clive Ross 5: Another who few would have envisaged starting this match four months ago, he was involved in the build up to Ulster’s second try.

Mike McComish 7: In only his second appearance for Ulster this season, the flanker scored a brace of tries and was hugely involved without the ball.

Roger Wilson 6: Captaining the side in the absence of Rory Best, Wilson emptied the tank over the course of 50 minutes despite a mounting deficit.

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