Heineken Cup: Ulster get their kicks from winning
Ulster 9 Biarritz 6: And so the roller-coaster ride that goes with being an Ulster supporter continues.
A three-point victory in Saturday’s Ravenhill cliffhanger means the 2010/11 Heineken Cup Pool 4 issue will not be decided until next Saturday afternoon.
Ulster are away to bottom-of-the-pile Italians Aironi — opponents they have already beaten three times this season — whilst over in south-west France Biarritz will host Bath. Results in those two matches will determine whose European adventures continue - and where.
Before Saturday’s rain and gale-lashed showdown Allen Clarke, Ulster’s hooker when they were crowed champions of Europe in 1999, forecast “a one per cent match” in which the side able to wring just that tiny bit extra from themselves would win it.
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin predicted: “This is going to be so tight.”
It was, and it’s not over yet for there is one more weekend of anguish to go.
That Ulster are still in the fray is attributable to their refusal to quit. In the opening 20 minutes of the second half, Ian Humphreys, with the gale in his back, matched what it had taken the French side’s Dimitri Yachvili 40 minutes to achieve.
But with the situation deadlocked at 6-6, Biarritz – who would have been delighted with a draw — decided to play up-the-jumper rugby for the final quarter.
Last season’s Heineken Cup runners-up did it very impressively, too, picking up and driving forward time and again.
Unable to get possession in the face of Biarritz’s mauling, Ulster could not manufacture a position from which to do their opponents any damage. The line-out began to crumble, with two in quick succession failing to yield set piece ball.
First Rory Best’s throw was adjudged not to have been straight. His next one, to the tail, was too long.
Biarritz, in contrast, were playing clever rugby in the conditions, keeping the ball in tight and making what forwards call ‘the hard yards’ as a result of their mauling.
All Ulster could do was hang on, defend for grim death and hope that somehow they would be able to break free of the black shirts’ death grip. It is to their huge credit that they did not panic and that their discipline remained so good.
Crucially they denied Yachvili any shots at the Aquinas end posts, atop which the tiny flags, driven by the wind, pointed straight down the pitch to where Ulster needed to be.
And when, after another period of sustained pressure which took the French to under Ulster’s crossbar as a result of having gone through the phases, it seemed that must yield a score. But Ulster hung in there, tackling ferociously and getting men to where they needed to be. It was hugely impressive defence of their line.
And although their scrum had been under growing in the second period, it held when it mattered.
With the minutes ticking away and front row pair BJ Botha and Rory Best having withdrawn with wrist and rib injuries respectively, Ulster’s players stood up to be counted. It meant that despite the post-interval statistics in terms of territory and possession in their favour, Biarritz failed to score.
Ulster raised the siege, got themselves as far as the half-way line and when referee Nigel Owens deemed a Biarritz player to have sealed off in the tackle — something of which they were guilty for much of the afternoon – the chance for which they had hung on and hoped came.
Humphreys’ penalty from a couple of metres inside his own half carried through the posts, just as his two earlier second-half efforts had. Biarritz were stunned and they had no time in which to salvage the game, albeit that they did escape with a bonus which may yet prove crucial.
It was no classic, but neither the Ulster players and coaching staff nor the supporters cared. The occasion, the conditions and the nature of the opposition pre-determined that if there was to be victory, it would have to be ground out.
It was and so they live to fight another day. And the watching Declan Kidney cannot but have been pleased by the showing of Ulster’s Irish international squad members, none of whom will have done themselves any harm at all in their case for inclusion.