Ulster still dream of Euro jackpot
Ulster 22 - Bath 18: Twenty-odd minutes into Saturday’s Ulster-Bath Heineken Cup battle at Ravenhill, in the bleak mid-winter appeared to be the song most of the 8,247 supporters were likely to be humming at the final whistle.
Instead it proved to be a very different scenario with triumphant Ulster’s potentially blue, blue Christmas having been transformed into something altogether more joyful.
And their delight was magnified greatly by the tidings of comfort and joy which came in from Italy where Aironi — beaten in each of their nine Magners League games to date — sprang a huge surprise by beating Biarritz Olympique, thereby opening up all sorts of possibilities in Pool 4.
Ulster showed real character when, having trailed 15-3 — largely as a result of errors on their own part — they fought back with 10 unanswered points before half-time and then took the post-interval honours by nine points to three. A lot of men in white stepped up and delivered. Stephen Ferris was a colossus. The front row — Tom Court, Nigel Brady and BJ Botha — comprehensively outscrummaged their opposite numbers. Johann Muller worked
unceasingly as did Pedrie Wannenburg. In midfield Paddy Wallace and Nevin Spence tackled superbly in defence. Andrew Trimble was courage personified, making a vital intervention when, with his side trailing 18-16, he caught Matt Carraro’s attempted chip deep in Ulster territory, made a great clearance to the Bath 22 and chased the ball to set up the passage which ultimately yielded a crucial penalty.
Ian Humphreys nailed that and for the first time Ulster led. Pivotal point in the match. And when that one-point advantage — 19-18 — became four points, Ulster protected that lead heroically in the face of fierce Bath pressure.
Right at the death, with Bath pouring forward in pursuit of a try which would have won the match, Trimble made an awesome tackle to deny them. You may see matches in this season’s Heineken Cup which are technically superior, but I very much doubt if you will witness any more committed display.
Humphreys had one of those matches Ulster followers have come to expect, namely a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. In the course of one performance he evolved from the back end of a panto horse into Prince Charming.
It was his pass which gifted Bath full-back Jack Cuthbert a try when Ulster were making all the running, had their opponents on the ropes in their own 22 and looked certain to finish a period of concerted pressure with a score.
Humphreys miscalculated, Cuthbert intercepted his pass, pinned back his ears and ran the length of the pitch. Olly Bartley,
who had been on target with a third minute penalty, added the conversion and Ulster were 10-0 down despite having played well.
Humphreys was at fault again for Bath’s second try, scored after 22 minutes by England captain Lewis Moody. The fly-half’s error was compounded by full-back Adam D’Arcy’s failure to take a high ball under pressure from the Bath flanker who was smiling all the way to the line.
Not that Ulster had a monopoly on yuletide generosity for it was a badly-judged pass by the visitors’ captain, scrum-half Michael Claassens, which gifted Wannenburg a much-needed try following a long run for home and with Humphreys adding the extras and then kicking a superb penalty from the halfway line the interval deficit was trimmed to just 15-13.
A Barkley penalty three minutes into the second period gave him three successes from four pots at the posts, his one blemish being the attempted conversion of Moody’s try which came back off a post. Humphreys was flawless after the break, landing three out of three penalty attempts to finish the day with 17 points from five goals plus a conversion and just one first-half miss.
Ulster deserve much credit for this performance. Now, having beaten Bath for the third time in a row in Heineken Cup pairings, they can travel in confidence and in the knowledge that Aironi have offered them a chance they really could not have envisaged.