Heineken Cup: No quarter given by superb Ulster
Rowland Phillips, the Welshman who coaches Aironi, lauded Ulster’s forwards for their second half display on Saturday at Stadio Luigi Zaffanella where it finished 43-6.
The one-time Great Britain Rugby League international and former Neath and Ebbw Vale coach said: “We competed very well in the first half but then the power of the Ulster pack took its toll.”
He was spot-on. Initially having looked like they would be swept away by Ulster who opened by securing the ball from the Italians’ kick-off and then putting together a turbo-charged eight-phase passage which stemmed from scrum-half Ruan Pienaar’s clever box kick and ended with Ian Humphreys landing the first of his six out of eight successes off the tee.
Ulster clearly were intent on playing high-tempo, running rugby.
In order to do that, of course, the primary requirement is to have ball winners and ball carriers capable of punching holes and drawing in defenders in order to create gaps for others to exploit.
Step forward Stephen Ferris, Dan Tuohy and Pedrie Wannenburg, each of whom revealed a healthy appetite for the fray from the off.
Big men willing and able to make big contributions on what was a very big day. Big occasion players in the vernacular.
Ulster’s breakneck start threatened to blast Aironi out of the water. Ferris, with the ball in his hands, charged into two green-shirted Italians, forcing both of them back by virtue of his power and pace.
The excellent Tuohy seemed to be everywhere. Pick and go, drive, recycle. Drive, pop, keep the momentum going.
It was a hugely impressive opening salvo, with the backs contributing to the spectacle, too.
A perfectly judged kick by Pienaar took Ulster to within 10 metres. Centre Nevin Spence and full-back Adam D’Arcy – both of whom impressed hugely – produced a couple of great runs apiece early on, with fly-half Humphreys fully involved in getting quick ball to those behind.
Surely tries had to come? In due course they did; there were five in the second half, albeit that only one of those was scored by a back. But in the first there was just one.
It went to the once-again impressive Andrew Trimble whose rich vein of form continues and who surely must — if there is any justice — be in the Ireland team for the forthcoming RBS 6 Nations Championship opener against Italy in Rome.
But having gone 10-0 up, Ulster got sloppy. They knocked on, they passed the ball forward, they spilled it in contact.
Aironi took advantage of those lapses with a James Marshall drop goal and a Tito Tebaldi penalty leaving it unnecessarily and uncomfortably close at 10-6 when the interval whistle sounded.
Once inside the dressing room, Ulster re-thought and re-grouped. Reminded of what was stake and what they had come to Italy to do they returned to the pitch as men
rejuvenated and intent on doing the simple things well. The effect was devastating.
Within two minutes of the resumption Ulster won a line-out, cheaply conceded by home full-back Julien Laharrague half-a-dozen yards from his own line, and what followed was rugby poetry in motion.
Throw, catch and drive enabling Wannenburg to touch down. No stopping the white juggernaut in those circumstances. Humphreys nailed a glorious conversion – 17-6 up. A much better position.
It got better still, for three minutes later they served up a near-replica. Humphreys put a penalty — again cheaply conceded, this time by centre Rodd Penney — into the corner and Ulster and Wannenburg did the same as before. So too did Humphreys with a sublime kick from touch – 24-6.
Aironi were gone. Such was the ferocity of Ulster’s play at that stage that the hosts lost injured centre Gilberto Pavan and then Laharrague in the 50th and 52nd
minutes respectively, bringing the number on their casualty list to three, scrum-half Michael Wilson having exited after only 15 minutes thereby forcing Tebaldi’s early introduction.
Ulster promptly extended their lead and banked their bonus with a penalty try awarded when French referee Cristophe Berdos punished Aironi’s spoiling tactics in a twice-wheeled five-metre scrum following great play by Paddy Wallace, Humphreys and Spence in creating yet another opportunity to tighten the screw. Leading 31-6 it was party time.
Ulster lost Ferris after 57 minutes with Chris Henry deputising and less than 10 minutes after joining in the replacement added try number five after running a great line to take Wannenburg’s pass. Humphreys was on target again – 38-6 with just under 15 minutes remaining.
Danielli’s touchdown wide left completed the job Ulster had come to do.
So an error-strewn first-half followed by a thoroughly professional display in the second. Ulster are not the finished product by any means, but they’re a lot closer to being that than was the case 12 months ago when elimination from Europe effectively ended their season.
Still involved in the Heineken Cup come April? Dream time.