Bayonne 15 Ulster 20: New Ulster coach Mark Anscombe’s reign has begun with an impressive victory in France.
Thursday night’s pre-season friendly against Bayonne at Parc des Jean Dauger finished 20-15, a significant result given that 12 months earlier Ulster were trounced 40-3 in the corresponding fixture.
As well as being further on in their preparations (the Top 14 starts next week) and having home advantage, the weather – sunny and 30 degrees at kick-off — also favoured Bayonne.
Against the odds Anscombe’s team delivered, for with the internationals still in dry dock the only survivers of the 15 who started in May’s Heineken Cup final defeat by Leinster were lock Johann Muller, fly-half Paddy Jackson and wing Craig Gilroy.
There was a debut for Australian-born but Irish-qualified open-side, Sean Doyle, while fit-again Kiwi, Jared Payne — playing his first game since rupturing his Achilles tendon last October against Benetton Treviso — was at outside centre with promising Chris Farrell also in midfield.
Inside, Blane McIlroy joined Jackson, at half-back and indeed the latter began his exorcism of the ghost of Twickenham by registering Ulster’s first points of the new season with a long-range penalty to give his side a 3-0 lead.
But with Ulster struggling in the scrum, Muller conceded a free and the French punished that indiscretion by scoring and converting from a quick tap to make it 7-3. And when Macklin was yellow-carded shortly before half-time, Bayonne made the most of that by scoring a second try.
By dint of well-organised defence, 14-man Ulster escaped further punishment and with 10 second-half minutes played, replacement half-backs — Michael Heaney and Niall O’Connor — scored and converted a try respectively, trimming Bayonne’s lead to 12-10.
With 12 minutes remaining, an O’Connor penalty saw Ulster edge into a 13-12 lead. Bayonne missed a penalty attempt but then landed one to go 15-13 up.
But Ulster weren’t finished and a late, late try by lock Neil McComb, converted by O’Connor, sealed what was a hugely encouraging win.
ULSTER: P Nelson; C Gilroy, J Payne, C Farrell, C Cochrane; P Jackson, B McIlroy; C Black, N Annett, A Macklin; J Muller (captain), N McComb; M McComish, S Doyle, R Diack. Replacements: R Herring, R Lutton, J Afoa, L Stevenson, A Birch, M Heaney, N O’Connor, L Marshall, M Allen, R Andrew.