Heineken Cup: Late drama masks harsh reality for Ulster
A curious affair, in so many ways...Ulster got the weather conditions they probably dreamed of, and Biarritz dreaded. Then Ulster got to half time with, it seemed, the game all but in their pockets.
Biarritz had been so dire in the first half, it appeared to require little imagination to believe Ulster would sweep to victory, wind and rain assisted, in the second half.
But perverse Biarritz, true to form, then produced their best rugby of the match in the last 20 minutes. They held onto the ball so efficiently, drove it up so well into the wind that in the end, Ulster were lucky to get one last chance to win it.
Commend Ian Humphreys for drilling it home so convincingly from 52 metres. That effort was the quintessential definition of delivering under searing pressure.
But Ulster smiles were somewhat misplaced afterwards. Firstly, the fate of the pool is no longer in their hands. If Biarritz beat Bath and score four tries for a bonus point next Saturday in south west France, they will top the pool due to their superior head-to-head record against Ulster.
Ulster could still reach the quarter finals, albeit perhaps without a home quarter final.
If they beat Aironi and also achieve the bonus point through four tries, they will finish on 22 points and that could be enough to secure one of the two runners-up slots for the quarter finals.
So it’s still looking bright and promising for Ulster? No, not necessarily. For if you strip away the hype, the atmosphere and the drama of Humphreys’ late winning penalty, this was an ordinary display by the Ulstermen.
They were short on composure near the opposition line, fumbling, knocking on or just squandering some clear try scoring chances in either half.
That lack of composure and invention cost them at least one try in the first half and they could have had more. They showed insufficient patience, snatching at opportunities, and little innovation in hurling themselves against the human wall of the Biarritz defence.
For me, the sum of the parts of this Ulster side, especially the South African contingent, is still not adding up to the whole. Ruan Pienaar sent one glorious long range kick rolling into the Biarritz corner with exquisite touch in the second half, but it was a rare moment of such precision.
Pienaar doesn’t look to me the world class player he did back in South Africa. Maybe it’s the conditions or the heavy grounds, I don’t know.
But there isn’t, so far, the same snap and crackle to his game and, consequently, he doesn’t provide the same lethal threat.
Pedrie Wannenburg and Johan Muller worked tirelessly to match the big Biarritz pack. But Ulster desperately needed more invention, greater craft and altogether more cunning from their half-backs to direct the game.
Let’s face it, they had enough ball to score a try or two that could have denied Biarritz the crucial defensive bonus point.
Ulster didn’t kick at all well with the wind behind them. Too many kicks either went out on the full, rolled over the dead ball line or went down the throat of the Biarritz full-back. It proved ruinously wasteful. By a considerable margin, Ulster had been the better team before half time. But they weren’t thereafter.
Such matches are decided by the slimmest of margins. Had Adam D’Arcy dived for the corner after being released by Simon Danielli’s dangerous break into the Biarritz 22, then Ian Balshaw’s despairing tackle might have been in vain.
Had Ulster taken just one of those chances when they were hammering away on the Biarritz line, they could have put clear daylight between themselves and their rivals. But on the day, you had to say they came up short.
Perhaps it was nerves, maybe the occasion and hint of desperation in the crowd. But whatever the reason, this was a missed opportunity for Ulster. Biarritz spent the entire first half demonstrating why they so frequently fail. Yet Ulster couldn’t make their superiority count in those first 40 minutes.
And the brutal fact is, but for Humphreys’ exceptional goal kicks, it would have been even worse for Ulster.