Bittersweet triumph sees Ulster come up just short
Ulster's European odyssey for came to a bittersweet end in the English West country yesterday.
Victory gave them their first Heineken Cup win in England in 12 attempts as their awful record away from Ravenhill in this competition, 19 defeats in 20 matches, was at last lifted from their sagging shoulders. Yet for all that, the Ulstermen still departed the tournament.
They came up agonisingly short because Stade Francais took a losing bonus point in a 9-7 defeat in Edinburgh. It meant that Ulster finished Pool 4 on 17 points, one adrift of the French club. Ulster should have scored a fourth try to secure a bonus point, although even that would not have been enough -- Stade's superior record in the two head-to-head meetings with Ulster would have sent them through had the sides finished joint top on 18 points.
With two tries already in the bag, plus a late, 77th minute effort from Paddy Wallace still to come, wing Simon Danielli failed to pass infield to full-back Jamie Smith, who would have been put clear for a certain try. It was a crass mistake by the Scottish wing who, playing against his former club, had started the movement for Ulster's first try and then set up their second, five minutes later for Darren Cave.
The match turned on one act and one man -- Bath's former England lock Danny Grewcock, who was sent off in the 32nd minute for stamping on man-of-the-match Stephen Ferris.
Grewcock's latest act of thuggery fully merited the red card. Ferris was trapped at the bottom of a ruck, albeit clinging onto Grewcock's other leg. But the double stamp was vicious and Bath could have no complaints at the decision.
Grewcock's record is appalling: five weeks' suspension for kicking in 1998, five weeks for stamping in 2002, two weeks for punching in 2003, six weeks for reckless use of the boot in 2004, two months suspension for biting on the Lions tour of 2005, one week for stamping in 2007 and then another suspension, of several months, later that year that ruled him out of the World Cup.
Ulster dominated first-half possession, taking over 70 per cent, but slow second-phase ball completely restricted their ambitions before half time.
There was no doubting Ulster's desire to find some space out wide, but they lacked precision in their execution.
Only Ferris stood out. He carried powerfully into the Bath defence, looked to off-load and made some powerful tackles. His work rate was phenomenal and he looked every inch the grafting international-class player he has become. The leg injury he sustained which sent him limping off late on will be a worry for the Ireland selectors with the Six Nations just a fortnight away.
Not far behind him was hooker Nigel Brady, who had a storming game.
Ulster's decision-making at crucial moments was ordinary, although Bath's soft, heavy pitch was hardly conducive to open-running, flowing rugby. Yet there was still too much static play by both sides.
After Niall O'Connor had landed two straightforward penalty goals from in front of the Bath posts, after five and 19 minutes, both for offences at the breakdown, Bath struck. The Ulster midfield defence crabbed horribly, allowing Nicky Little's pass to take out three defenders and England wing Matt Banahan scored untouched in the right corner. Little converted for a 7-6 lead.
O'Connor's third penalty of the half, for the Grewcock aberration, gave Ulster a 9-7 interval advantage.
Ulster had set out knowing that to win the group, they needed not just the win but a bonus point for four tries and a defeat for Stade Francais in Edinburgh without a bonus point. Four tries in the second half looked a remote possibility yet suddenly, within just eight minutes of the re-start, they had scored two.
Andrew Trimble lit the fires of hope with a superb individual score after 43 minutes. Danielli caught a kick on his own '22 and counter-attacked. When the ruck ball was moved wide, Trimble poured through a gap, side-stepped another defender and found open space. He slowed to stop the momentum of the last defender, full-back Joe Maddock, and then scorched past him on the outside to reach the corner from 65 metres out.
O'Connor could not convert but Ulster then did it again. From 70 metres out, Danielli gathered his own chip ahead, cut past two defenders and straightened before sending Darren Cave over under the posts. O'Connor converted for a 21-7 lead.
Yet from that ascendancy, Ulster let Bath back into the game and the home team dominated. The door was shut on Ulster's four-tries ambitions, especially when Danielli failed to put Smith clear.
Paddy Wallace's late try made no difference to the table, but it reinforced the impression that Ulster are a team on the rise.
Scorers -- Bath: Banahan try; Little con, pen. Ulster: Trimble, Cave, Wallace tries; O'Connor 2 cons, 3 pens.
Bath: Maddock; Stephenson, Carraro, Hape, Banahan; Little, Claassens; Flatman (Barnes 63), Mears (Dixon 63), Wilson; Grewcock, Hooper; Beattie, Salvi,Watson (Fa'amatuainu 69).
Ulster: Smith; Trimble, Cave, Wallace, Danielli; O'Connor, Boss; Court, Brady (Kyriacou 63), Botha (Fitzpatrick 63); Tuohy, O'Donoghue (Caldwell 69); Ferris, Pollock, Henry.
Referee: J Garces (France)