Iain Henderson: Ulster must not blow Euro chance and waste hard work
Skipper Iain Henderson has called on Ulster to seal a quarter-final spot and ensure their good work so far in Europe does not go to waste.
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The province suffered their first defeat of the Champions Cup campaign away to Clermont on Saturday, falling 29-13 despite leading 10-9 at half-time and giving up top spot in Pool Three in the process.
Barring an unlikely set of results this weekend, Ulster's hopes of hosting a quarter-final in the competition for the first time since 2014 appear to be over but they will qualify for the last-eight as a best runner-up for the second season in succession providing they can beat Bath at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday (3.15pm kick-off).
"We have one week left," said Henderson. "It is all to play for.
"We want to be making the knockout stages, that has been our goal from the start and it is still within our grasp.
"We have worked hard for the first four rounds in the Champions Cup and let's not allow those four weeks to go to waste by not getting it right next week."
Henderson added: “Boys will be frustrated, upset going back home, but this squad has an incredible bouncebackability.
“We will be back in first thing training on Monday morning and be as positive as ever.”
Things had been going well for Ulster in the Stade Marcel Michelin, as they led 10-3 after only 10 minutes and 10-9 at half-time.
Dan McFarland’s men failed to make the most of promising positions, however, and ultimately were well beaten after Clermont took advantage of their visitors’ struggles at the set-piece.
“We were under no illusion as to how difficult a place this was to come, we had talked about it all week,” said Henderson.
“We did well in the first half and in the second half we allowed a few opportunities to slip.
“We did not get the grounding in the first half we would have liked even coming up at half-time.
“I suppose when your set-piece is not functioning well in terms of scrum, losing a couple in the second half is not ideal and you cannot really expect to be getting on the front foot and scoring tries if you cannot get your set-piece right.”
Henderson, who took over the captaincy this summer after the retirement of Rory Best, opted for the corner on three occasions rather than instruct John Cooney to take aim for the posts but, against a side who can accumulate points as rapidly as Clermont, said he believed that pushing the envelope offered a better chance of victory than building a score.
“Very few times will you come to a place like this and it comes down to a point or two at the end of the game,” said the lock, who will have known the trio of fruitless visits to the opposition ‘22’ would bring with them questions over his decision. “You need to try and back yourself to get points. We backed ourselves and fair play to Clermont, they held us out.
“I suppose it’s hard to know if it changed the whole game, but you cannot say going for the posts before half-time would have changed the final result.
“You have to take your opportunities when you get them and it was probably a period when we would have wanted to get more ball, get more points potentially, but a couple of mauls could have gone a little bit better for us.
“This place is difficult one to come to, a difficult pack to try and maul against, and that is kind of the crux of it.”
In isolation, the final score offered little evidence of Ulster’s strong start with Henderson adding that, with so much on the line this coming weekend, it will be crucial that they put in a more consistent showing across the full 80 minutes.
At least Ulster are facing Bath at the best possible time, the English side having lost all five pool games so far. They fielded an inexperienced side against Harlequins in Friday night’s dead-rubber with next weekend’s home game against Leicester Tigers naturally of far greater consequence than whatever happens in Belfast.
“There is definitely a fair chance of underestimating a team like that,” he admitted.
“We have to ensure we show up and play.
“We will be well aware of that and ensure our first quarter is the way we started the game (against Clermont) but we have to make sure we bring that for an extended period of play. There was a lot of excitement and a positive nervous energy coming here (to the Stade Marcel Michelin) and I think a lot of the boys used it as a real positive going into this game.
“That energy is brilliant out there and it added to our sort of excitement and the boys love that bit of extra energy, and I think parts of the first half showed that, but not for the full game.
“We will look to start well and we will do that by looking to start the week well on Monday morning.”