Jackson delivers as Ulster save campaign
Oyonnax 23 Ulster 24
When the euphoria of coming from 23-0 down to win away in France dies down, Ulster will realise they got away with one here.
Les Kiss gambled with his team selection for the biggest game of his side's season and, although he blamed a collective poor performance for his side's dreadful opening half, he'll be reluctant to do it again any time soon.
Ruan Pienaar, Nick Williams and match-winner Paddy Jackson came on at half-time and changed the game, but the Australian will feel that such drastic action shouldn't have been needed so early against a largely-second-string team who sit second from bottom in the Top 14 and are already out of Europe.
A combination of harsh words from captain Rory Best and some on-the-spot problem solving from the coaching team did the trick at half-time and Ulster kept Irish interest in this year's Champions Cup alive.
Jackson delivered the final flourish with a 51-metre kick to win it a week after missing two efforts to beat Munster at Kingspan Stadium. The 4G surface in Oyonnax helped his cause, but the youngster showed huge bottle to deliver his fourth kick from four having come on at half-time.
"The thrust had to be an honesty check or a reality check and, to a man, they said 'this is not good enough'," Kiss (pictured) said of the crucial half-time period.
"There had to be a bit of emotion in it, we had to make the commitment emotionally to do it, but we also had to tighten up technically and tactically, and we saw that in the scrum, we'd a better return in the lineout and our general phase play improved.
"They were stoic in the second half too, they kept holding us up but our patience. . . just to be relentlessly patient in our game still paid off for us, even if we didn't get the extra try, to see Paddy step up with such confidence to nail that was a big plus as well.
"He's certainly growing as a very, very good player and a very, very good fly-half. He's only just begun really."
Kiss doesn't want his side to rely on dressing-room rallying calls in order to perform, however.
"I don't see why you need a kick up the pants sometimes," he said. "At half-time, the first words I said was: 'Do you need someone to go off the rocker and get you back on track or can you take ownership of it yourself?'.
"I think the game in itself and the circumstances right through to the back of the game is a reminder that you need to be on, every moment of every game that you prepare for. It was obvious that we weren't and it was more mental than anything else.
"To us, that's somewhere we've got to grow stronger into. It's nice to have that lesson after a win when you've been down 23-0."
Oyonnax are renowned as one of the Top 14's poorest scrummaging packs and left out their first-choice loosehead prop and hooker, but they blew the Ulster eight away during the first half.
The first set-piece indirectly led to the home side's opening try: the penalty won allowed Nicky Robinson find touch and the locals rolled up their sleeves and mauled over Ulster, with Jeremie Maurouard touching down.
The scrum wasn't the visiting side's only problem and their poor defensive work was exposed when hooker Maurouard stepped past Ricky Lutton and raced into the Ulster 22. A slew of white defenders went off their feet, so Robinson added a penalty.
He would get six more points from the scrum to stretch his side's lead to 16-0, before Fijian wing Tawalo Uwanakoro capitalised on a dreadful pass from Paul Marshall as Ulster pressed to race the length of the field and score. Robinson converted and Ulster were staring down the barrel of a humiliating defeat.
Kiss brought out the big guns for the second half, with the introduction of Williams and Robbie Diack's move to the second-row appearing to fix their scrum problems, while Pienaar and Jackson sharpened everything up behind.
Within four minutes of the whistle, they had clawed a try back through Rory Scholes, who took Stuart McCloskey's inside pass and left a trail of defenders in his wake to score.
It didn't all happen at once, but even as chances went a-begging, Ulster remained patient.
Scholes forced a penalty with a strong chase and big tackle on Dug Codjo, who held on. Pienaar tapped the penalty and surged into the home side's territory, before Jackson looped on the excellent McCloskey and found Louis Ludik, who drew the last defender and put Craig Gilroy away.
Jackson nailed the touchline conversion and you could see the Oyonnax shoulders slump. The gap was closed further when the home side spilled a lineout and, from the resurgent scrum, McCloskey and Luke Marshall made big gains, Best took it up to the line and Kyle McCall ripped the ball off him and crashed over.
Again, Jackson nailed his kick and Ulster had 13 minutes to win it.
Scholes and McCloskey spurned chances, but still they kept their heads.
The last opportunity came when Oyonnax went off their feet to give away a penalty just inside Ulster's half. All eyes fell on Pienaar, but instead it was Jackson who nailed the long-distance kick, using the wind at his back to comfortably make the distance and consign the two efforts he missed against Munster last weekend to the past.
Still, there was time for some late drama. Kiss finally withdrew his two props but their replacements Callum Black and Bronson Ross had to deal with two scrums on the edge of their 22, right in front of the posts before the whistle went. The first, they got away with, the second they survived.
Luke Pearce sounded the final whistle and Ulster had a comeback for the ages on a day that might have been remembered for very different reasons.
With Saracens in six days' time, there was no time for celebration. Improvement is needed.
OYONNAX - Q Etienne; D Codjo, A Taufa, E Sheridan, U Tawalo; N Robinson (R Clegg 56), J Blanc (A Aziza 57); L Delboulbes (S Wright 63), J Maurouard (T Bordes 53), M Clerc (H Pungea 61); G Robson, F Metz (G Fabbri 65); P Gunther (V Ma'afu 61), M F'aasavalu (capt), P Wannenburg.
ULSTER - C Gilroy; S Arnold (L Ludik 24, S Reidy 76), L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Scholes; I Humphreys (P Jackson h-t), P Marshall (R Pienaar h-t); K McCall (C Black 21-27, 79), R Best (capt) (R Herring 76), R Lutton (B Ross 79); L Stevenson (N Williams h-t) (R Best 79), F Van der Merwe; R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson.
Ref - L Pearce (England)