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Ulster win but it’s not enough

Castres 8 Ulster 9: The historic victory Ulster had sought since 1998 finally was achieved on Saturday afternoon at Stade Pierre Antoine.

Yet when it came there was a sense of anti-climax. Ulster had qualified for the Heineken quarter-finals before flying out on Friday morning, which meant that part of the job had been done.

Part two was to return having laid the never-won-on-French-soil hoodoo.

Part three — not only to win, but in doing so score four tries, thereby earning a bonus point — was by far the most difficult aspect of the assignment.

The sense of anti-climax was attributable to the fact that while they were able to break their French duck, they failed to bank the fifth point which would have guaranteed a home quarter-final. That is what dulled the lustre of Saturday’s first competitive win in France.

But it underlines the province’s on-going improvement that they were able to achieve it minus forwards of the calibre and experience of skipper Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy, Stephen Ferris and Nick Williams, whose replacement, Roger Wilson, lasted less than half an hour.

Behind the pack they were without front-liners Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne and Luke Marshall.

Vitally, though, the first-choice front row was there yet again when it mattered and the scrummaging of Tom Court, Rory Best and John Afoa provided the platform on which this win was built.

When you go to France, you go to war. The battle of the scrum is the big one.

Court, Best and Afoa deserve medals for gallantry in view of the job they did in there — for the full 80 minutes, note, for while the hosts’ coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers replaced their entire front row in a vain attempt to gain superiority, Ulster’s Mark Anscombe stuck with his trusty threesome for the duration.

The lineout was less impressive, however — six lost on Ulster’s own throw.

As a match it was a slog rather than a spectacle, with few moments of genuine excitement. This was a case of toughing it out, giving nothing away cheaply and taking the few chances on offer.

The fact that Ruan Pienaar’s match-winning 64th minute penalty — his third from five attempts — yielded the only points of the second half tells the story of a war of attrition.

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Ulster’s discipline was much better than that of the hosts, whose concession of penalties cost them dearly. Referee Nigel Owens certainly cannot be accused of having played to the Stade Pierre Antoine gallery, patrons of which noisily challenged most of the string of penalties he awarded against them — 14 all told in comparison to five conceded by Ulster.

Nevertheless, those critics must have been relieved when, just ahead of Wilson’s exit, rather than awarding Ulster a penalty try for repeated front row infringements by Castres, the referee penalised them at the end of a three-minute spell of relentless scrum-time pressure in the home 22.

The scoreline underlines the nature of the occasion, with the solitary try having been scored by the hosts after eight minutes when Ulster were carved open down their left side. No-one laid a hand on home centre Remi Lamerat as he raced in.

Pre-match we had wondered whether Castres would be in the mood; ominously, this rather suggested that they might be.

Pienaar promptly replied with a penalty, to which Rory Kockott responded in kind six minutes later leaving the hosts 8-3 up at the end of a worrying first quarter from an Ulster perspective.

Wilson’s departure with a recurrence of his hamstring problem saw Robbie Diack switch from six to eight and Iain Henderson joining the fray at blindside. Both played big parts in Ulster’s win.

Ulster’s only other replacement, Paddy Jackson, shone as well. Given his recent dip in form, culminating in the loss to Pienaar — firstly of his goal-kicking role and then his jersey — the 21-year-old needed a big display.

Paul Marshall’s withdrawal and Pienaar’s reversion to his preferred scrum half role on 55 minutes — he had not looked happy at stand-off — gave Jackson his opportunity and he grabbed it with both hands. Suddenly, as a team, they looked slicker and accurate.

With 15 big carries to his credit, former Ulster favourite Pedrie Wannenburg got the sponsors’ man of the match vote. But it is his old pals from Ravenhill who are in the quarter-finals.