Terrific Ulster leave Bath drained
Bath 22 Ulster 26: So Ulster’s Heineken Cup dream goes on.
On Saturday they returned to the scene of their only previous European triumph on English soil and in a reenactment of January 2010 chalked up their second victory at Bath’s famous Recreation Ground home.
Undoubtedly in the 11-month interim, Ulster have progressed. Bath, in contrast, have not, despite their ambitious recruitment of Sir Ian McGeehan and England captain Lewis Moody.
Saturday was Bath’s fifth successive defeat. Currently they lie ninth of the 12 clubs in the Aviva Premiership and third of the four in Pool 4 of the Heineken Cup. With their involvement in Europe over for another year, coach Steve Meehan’s days would appear to be numbered.
Ulster’s double over them in their back-to-back meetings in the past two weekends will not have helped Meehan, but professional sport is a ruthless, results-driven business in which failure is not an option.
In contrast to Meehan and Bath, Brian McLaughlin and Ulster march on at this stage, their reputations growing.
The goals they named at the start of the season included reaching Christmas with their European aspirations intact, in tandem with genuine hopes of a top four finish in the Magners League.
In stark contrast to Bath’s losing run, Saturday was Ulster’s fourth successive win. That in itself is impressive, but bearing in mind the fact that three of those successes have been on the road, it is particularly noteworthy.
In the past Ulster have talked the talk. Now they are walking the walk. Thus you have man of the match Ian Humphreys saying: “There's loads of confidence in the squad at the moment.”
Saturday saw further evidence that Humphreys might be right, not least from himself. He has always been ‘a confidence player,’ that being a term used to describe those who, on days when things do not start well for them, tend not to shine.
Humphreys disproved that sweeping generalisation. As early as the sixth minute, Bath scrum-half and skipper Martin Claasens charged down a Humphreys kick and only a kindly bounce of the ball spared Ulster further damage at a time when they were already 5-0 in arrears following Matt Carraro’s opening salvo try.
Humphreys recovered, proving the point with a delightfully executed pass in the creation of Adam D’Arcy’s 11th minute try, which he then converted.
And when his opposite number, Butch James, flattened him with a late lunge — which, had he done the same thing on the street outside would have seen him facing an assault charge — Humphreys, after treatment, immediately responded by kicking a penalty to keep Ulster in touch at 11-10.
Not for the first time in these Bath v Ulster battles, the hosts’ indiscipline played a part.
Last season at Ravenhill, back row forward Andy Beattie was ordered off. In Bath, in the return match, Danny Grewcock was red-carded. Last week in Belfast, the English side had David Flatman sin-binned. On Saturday it was South African World Cup winner James who was shown yellow after an assault on Dan Tuohy who was on the ground at the time.
While Ulster did not take advantage at once, ultimately they did with centre Nevin Spence finishing a great multi-phase passage to score in the corner. Humphreys converted superbly from touch and for the first time, Ulster were ahead at 20-14.
At once they upped the ante, with Humphreys again taking the plaudits for landing a magnificent penalty from inside his own half — five from five off the tee.
Olly Barkley replied in kind with 12 minutes remaining when Ulster were reduced to 14, the unlucky Spence being the fall guy after they infringed once too often in the face of renewed pressure.
Barkley’s failure to convert man mountain Matt Banahan’s try two minutes later was crucial. Had he kicked that, Bath would have led 24-23 with 10 minutes to go.
Barkley ended the day with statistics of four from seven.
In contrast, Humphreys finished with six from six after nailing a crucial 73rd minute penalty which left Bath needing a try to win.
Yes, there is much more work to be done; Ulster are not the finished article, but they are where they wanted to be at Christmas and that is to their credit.