Monday 27 February 2017

Biarritz control destiny of pool

Ulster 9 Biarritz 6

BRENDAN FANNING at Ravenhill

The minimum target for Ulster yesterday -- as we tend to say in the trade -- at a wet and windy Ravenhill was to come first in the race.





The second was to keep Biarritz from getting a bonus point. With a dramatic final flourish from their outhalf Ian Humphreys, younger brother of David who filled the same shirt when last they qualified for the knockouts in Europe -- in 1998/99 -- Ulster reached their first goal.

In the wild celebrations that greeted the winning kick, with two minutes left, you wonder if the locals appreciated how much ground still lies between them and the quarter-finals. Ulster go to Aironi, whom they have beaten three times this season between Europe and Magners, in search of a win -- in reality, a bonus-point win.

And even that it might not be enough, for Biarritz are at home to Bath, and if it comes down to a countdown between the pair, who jointly top the pool on 17 points, then the Basques go through on the strength of their superior points in the head to head with Ulster. A 22-point haul from their six matches at least would set Ulster up for a possible advance as one of the best qualifiers.

Of course, if it wasn't for Humphreys, they wouldn't be going anywhere. He has been in and out of this Ulster side because of his inconsistency in general play, but on a horrible day like this you needed someone to back himself to turn rare chances into points. He never looked like missing it, all 51 metres of it.

"To be honest I didn't think about it too long," he said afterwards. "I thought there was probably more time left. But as I was telling Ruan [Pienaar] about it -- that's why we're out there every day. So you just bring it back to that -- what we're doing on the training pitch, as if we were having a wee competition against each other. Fortunately for me I just got it up in the air and the wind did the rest."

Yes, the wind. It blew down into the Memorial end with some venom. And if it eased slightly then it was only to accommodate sheets of rain that started in the second quarter and didn't abate until the final one. A typically horrible Ravenhill day, and one that in the past might have discouraged French sides.

Not this one. Biarritz have made an art form of not playing much rugby and they didn't do anything too far from base here either, but their appetite for the close-in stuff was never in question. When it was their turn to play into the elements, in the second half, they produced an immense phase of picking and driving which brought Ulster all the way back to their own posts, just after Humphreys had kicked his second penalty to tie the game up.

It was a great response. The move was terminated in the nick of time for Ulster by referee Nigel Owens, who sometimes gave the impression he was looking for reasons to rule against the away team. There was a collective gasp of relief from the crowd of 10,566 who could see all their team's hard work going south in a flash.

Ulster had done much of that work in the first 40 minutes when, in fairness to them, they combined some width, especially off lineout ball, with the grunt work.

"We were relatively happy with the first half," said Brian McLaughlin afterwards. "Three-nil would have been better and 0-0 even more so but if you look at our first half we did what we said we would do: we kept the ball. We were a bit disappointed that we created a couple of opportunities and didn't take them."

Critically they didn't get anything from a 10-minute period with an extra man after Erik Lund was binned for killing ruck ball. Well, perhaps not critically, for it was just the day for it if you had to get through a period down a man. But Ulster did have chances. Humphreys had a penalty shot blow back at him after only three minutes. And that was from less then 30 metres. Then late in the half Adam D'Arcy was judged to have knocked on when he was chasing a ball that he had kneed ahead. It came after a great flick inside from the excellent Stephen Ferris, who himself was chasing a good punt from Humphreys. The outhalf did more than kick his goals.

It was largely a frustrating period for Biarritz, that first 40 minutes. Dimitri Yachvili got just two chances and nailed the two of them. In conditions like this the only way to retain the ball successfully into the wind is to spend a lot of time off your feet, sealing the ball off. Which of course is entirely illegal and which Mr Owens chose to ignore. That's the way it is in rugby.

When it came the turn of Biarritz to defend their 6-0 lead in the second half they looked like they would do okay, for their scrum was solid and when they drove in close they did it in pairs -- Ulster defended in single numbers and paid with yardage. But they got off to a horrible start to the new half when Humphreys pulled back three points from a penalty close in. It wasn't until the end of the third quarter, however, before he got the chance to level the scores.

At that stage the Ulster faithful thought they were home and hosed. But Biarritz responded manfully, especially given they had lost captain Imanol Harinordoquy at the break. Ulster too would lose a key player when Rory Best went off with rib trouble, and BJ Botha retired with a damaged elbow, which is an ongoing issue for him.

It was getting pretty stressful then as the clock ticked down and it looked like Ulster wouldn't get another opening to squeeze through. The advantage of having a big wind at your back is that the opportunity doesn't have to be in your opponents' half. The kick that levelled the game had been five metres on Ulster's side of half-way, and the one that would win it was about one metre short of that line. Yet Humphreys struck both as if he were practising with Pienaar on a Monday morning. All to play for in the last round.

Scorers -- Ulster: I Humphreys 3 pens. Biarritz: D Yachvili 2 pens.

Ulster: A Darcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best (N Brady 74), BJ Botha (D Fitzpatrick 70), J Muller, D Tuohy, S Ferris, P Wannenberg, W Faloon (C Henry 72).

Biarritz: D Haylett-Petty; T Ngwenya, M Bosch (M Bond 8), L Tranier, I Balshaw (I Bolakoro 50); D Traille, D Yachvili; E Coetzee (Y Watremez 67), B August, S Marconnet, J Thion, E Lund (yc 14-24), M Lund, R Lakafia, I Harionordoquy (capt) (S Vahafoloa h-t).

Referee: N Owens (Wal).

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