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No fairytale ending but much hope for future

By Gavin Mairs

As Steve Williams said afterwards, fairytales only take place in books, not on the rugby pitch.

It was perhaps asking for too much for Ulster to bounce back from the turbulence of the resignation of Mark McCall with a first ever victory on French soil at Bourgoin on Friday night.

The province eventually slipped to a 24-17 defeat to effectively bring their Heineken Cup campaign to a premature end.

But it certainly looked on at half-time, when sizzling tries by Kieron Dawson and Simon Danielli, both created by moments of genius by Paddy Wallace, who also converted both touchdowns and slotted a penalty, had given the visitors a 17-9 lead.

In the circumstances and given the context, those first 40 minutes were the best rugby Ulster had played since the 30-3 rout of Toulouse last season.

The forwards, with Carlo del Fava making a big point at his former club with a heavyweight performance, were physical and direct, keeping hold of the ball and making hard yards. Roger Wilson and Matt McCullough were also prominent while Neil Best carried well.

Out behind, Wallace at times looked sensational, playing the gain-line, heads-up rugby we know he is capable of, sensing space and attacking it with devastating effect.

Ultimately though, when the heat came on, Ulster didn't have the composure and hard-headedness to close out the victory, and Wallace will have been unhappy at his defence for both of their tries, by Arnaud Tchougong and Jean-Francois Coux, which came rather softly from deep.

The visitors did show enough resolve to protect their losing bonus point.

With qualification for next season's Heineken Cup now the key goal, the trip to Connacht, who are one-point ahead of Ulster in the league table, on Friday suddenly has become the most important game of the season.

Caretaker coach Williams says it is now about taking small steps forward.

"We just have to keep plying on," said Williams. "Whatever competition, whatever the game, we just have to keep playing.

"The papers will write the stories that they want to write about us whether we are in or out of competitions, but we just have to take it a game at a time.

"We have to look to improve our performance. And that is the key point. It all comes from performance. You can't win and play badly. We have to play well and consistently play well for 80 minutes.

"Afterwards the players were a bit down and very emotional after the effort they put in. I think they all thought they were going to win the game and win it well but it wasn't to be.

"But we said afterwards that we had got ourselves into this position and we are going to get ourselves out of it."

"I thought we were very positive. We went out there with a positive intent to play some rugby and take it to them," he said.

"I think in the second half we were a little bit too guilty of trying to hang on in that middle period and instead of going at them again.

"We made a couple of soft errors which perhaps came from that lack of direction and purpose that we had in the first half. It is something we have got to learn and learn quickly.

"If we play like that (in the first half) we will win a lot of games.

And does he feel the performance represented a turning point in a season that has yielded just one win from eight competitive games?

"Hopefully," he added. "There is a performance there that showed we are a really good team. We certainly got the respect of that Bourgoin side. They knew they were in a game, perhaps tougher than they expected at home.

"There were times up front we really took it to them and made some smart decisions."

"We said we weren't going to win the game by going into ourselves. We knew it wasn't all going to fall into place. Fairytales just happen in books.

"For a time we thought yes, we thought it was going to happen, but then I think we were guilty of looking at the scoreboard too much instead of perhaps looking at the game."

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