Biarritz 35 Ulster 15: Ulster were reminded of the cost of not taking chances in the course of a hammering by Biarritz Olympic yesterday afternoon at sun-kissed Parc des Sports Aguiléra.
Their sorry record of never having won a Heineken Cup game in France still stands with opponents, whose home record going into this was three defeats in a decade, having trounced them in a nightmarish second half.
Ulster were boosted before kick-off on learning that Erik Lund was out of the engine room, his place alongside Jerome Thion having gone to Manuel Carizza. Also omitted was No 8 Raphael Lakafia, whose exit saw captain Imanol Harinordoquy switch from the open side flank to the middle of the back row.
The travelling hordes — hundreds of them — treated the hosts to a hearty rendition of ‘Stand Up for the Ulstermen’ as their favourites, wearing the new blue away jersey, emerged into the sunshine. And for most of the first half their faith that it was to be their day appeared to have a basis.
Having withstood the expected opening salvo Ulster settled into their rhythm.
Ruan Pienaar had a chance to underline this early superiority but failed with an eminently kickable penalty. Good chance gone.
It wasn’t to be the only one, although two minutes later the scrum-half was on target and Ulster deservedly led.
They grew in confidence, dominating in all aspects against opponents who, in the face of Ulster’s intensity, could not get out of second gear. And when Ulster began to mix it up a little and vary things, Biarritz looked very beatable.
But despite their supremacy at that stage, they were unable to ram home the advantage and with only a three-point lead they were vulnerable. Biarritz became a little more physical and a mite more menacing.
Even so, Ulster ought to have made more of a situation arising from Ian Humphreys’ excellent interception, kick and chase from well inside his own half to catch Iain Balshaw in-goal, forcing a five-metre scrum. Diack, Pienaar and Trimble ought to have seen off Balshaw, but failed to do so.
Trimble then fumbled a Dimitri Yachvili box kick as the pressure on the guests intensified and with the latter’s relationship with No 8 Harinordoquy at the base of the scrum getting better and better, it was game on.
The equalising penalty came three minutes before the break when full-back Adam D’Arcy — a 25th minute replacement for Simon Danielli which saw David McIlwaine switch to the left wing — was penalised for not releasing after bravely taking a high ball.
But right on half-time Ulster had another chance to go in ahead when, from a charge-down of a kick, Diack and Wannenburg broke with only Balshaw between them and the line. Somehow he managed to stop Diack feeding his colleague who was away had
the pass come. Instead Diack was forced into touch and another huge chance was lost.
Just how big it was became obvious in the opening stages of the second half which saw Biarritz go from all-square at 3-3 to 23-3 up in the space of just 11 minutes.
The always-dangerous wing Takudzwa Ngwenya began the rot with the game’s first try which had been coming from the moment the second half kicked off. Credit for its creation goes to lock, Magnus Lund, however. Dachvili converted and Ulster trailed 10-3.
It was largely all downhill from there. The flawless Dachvili added two more penalties in the 54th and 59th minutes and then converted to maintain his 100% record when lock Manuel Carizza applied the finish from close in as Ulster heads began to drop.
A 66th minute Trimble try following a long throw over a line-out did not even qualify as a consolation and Pienaar’s missed conversion merely added to the growing sense of despair.
Replacement prop Sylvian Marconnet promptly added a third try for the hosts, with Dachvili’s sixth successful kick from six attempts making the score 30-8.
Ngwenya, who was outstanding, clinched the bonus following a glorious passage — great passing, great handling, great lines, great score, at which point Dachvili showed that he can miss sometimes by fluffing the conversion. But it had long since ceased to matter.
Stephen Ferris’s late try — converted on the drop by Pienaar — was no compensation for the disappointment.