Ulster play the waiting game after crushing Oyonnax victory
Ulster 56 Oyonnax 3
Jared Payne put his hand up for Ireland selection at full-back with a masterful display as Ulster put their best foot forward in the race for a Champions Cup quarter-final place.
Les Kiss’s men must now watch and wait in the hope for favours elsewhere having done everything they could to qualify with this eight try win over Top 14 strugglers Oyonnax.
Joe Schmidt will note the paucity of the opposition when he assesses his Ireland contenders’ performances, but Payne’s counter-attacking play was so good that the national team coach has to have been impressed by his fellow New Zealander.
The 30-year-old has all 10 of his caps in the centre and has struck up a fine partnership with Robbie Henshaw in a green shirt, but the emergence of Stuart McCloskey and fine form of Luke Marshall, who was again excellent, and Luke Fitzgerald has increased Schmidt’s midfield options.
Rob Kearney gets a chance to respond against Wasps this afternoon in one of the matches that Ulster will keep a keen eye on in the hope of a dig-out. Having won well here, they need two of Wasps, Stade Francais, Ospreys, Toulon or Northampton Saints to slip up.
It’s a long shot, but if they fail to make the last eight it won’t be because of today’s result.
Ulster began with a purpose, turning over Oyonnax immediately after kick-off and searching for a try. Their first penalty went into touch, but when the maul failed to go anywhere and they were presented with a second Paul Marshall tapped quickly and got within inches of the line, before hooker Rob Herring dotted down from close range with just two minutes on the clock.
Paddy Jackson converted, but any thoughts the hosts were going to have it all their own way were quickly dashed as they lost Kyle McCall to a head injury and then Darren Cave was penalised for holding on and Rory Clegg narrowed the gap from the tee.
When you’ve Nick Williams in your side, however, it’s always possible to re-arrest the momentum of a game and the big No8 got his team going with a big carry in midfield, before stand-in captain Rob Herring showed quick feet to break through the visiting midfield but ruined it all with a terrible pass that went above and behind Craig Gilroy.
Oyonnax messed up the lineout, but the hosts let a chance go by after Patrick Gunther went high on Craig Gilroy. Jackson turned down the shot from underneath the posts and, having won the lineout, Ulster got in a muddle at the maul and referee Marius Mitrea handed the French side a penalty.
Another Williams carry got the northern province back on the front-foot however and Ulster followed it with a move from the Joe Schmidt play-book; with Rob Herring feeding the ball inside to Jared Payne who went through a sizeable gap and drew full-back Florian Denos to put Darren Cave over.
Clegg missed a chance to narrow the gap and Ulster didn’t take long to stretch it further, with Payne again the architect. There didn’t look like there was much on for the Ireland international when he fielded a Garryowen on the 10m line, near the touchline, but he neatly side-stepped Denos and drew Daniel Ikpefan before putting Luke Marshall away. He passed inside to Jackson who, in turn, fed Rory Scholes who cantered over.
The all-important fourth try came on the stroke of half-time with Oyonnax rapidly losing interest. Ulster turned down another kickable penalty, Craig Gilroy surged close to the line and Paul Marshall popped the ball out of the tackle for Sean Reidy to score.
Try number five arrived within eight minutes of the restart. Luke Marshall off-loaded to Gilroy who then thought he had put Andrew Trimble over, only for Denos to get a hand in and deflect the ball into touch. Trimble quickly took the lineout to Reidy who drove towards the line and Paul Marshall and Trimble worked the ball wide to Gilroy to score.
Robbie Diack was next to score after the impressive Reidy surged up the left wing, before replacement Ian Humphreys scorched over from the edge of the ’22 as the visitors checked out completely.
There were still 20 minutes remaining and Payne capped his brilliant performance with a simple finish to score from a Cave break, before the centre came off and the full-back reverted to the midfield.
That brought them within one score of breaking their European record winning margin and points total, but it wasn’t to be.
Records will be of little consequence, all that matters is that they get over the line and squeeze into the last eight somehow.
Ulster -- Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble (Rory Scholes 26-37 blood), Darren Cave (R Scholes 62), Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson (Ian Humphreys 52) (Jackson 71 HIA), Paul Marshall (D Shanahan 68; Kyle McCall (Callum Black 57), Rob Herring (capt) (Rory Best 74), Ricky Lutton (B Ross 68); Alan O'Connor, Franco Van Der Merwe (Roger Wilson 52); Robbie Diack, Sean Reidy, Nick Williams (C Ross 60)
OYONNAX -- Florian Denos (capt); Daniel Ikpefan, Guillaume Bousses, Alaska Taufa, Dug Codjo; Rory Clegg (R Lespinas 57), Julien Blanc; Soane Tonga'uiha (L Delboulbes 67), Thomas Bordes (Jeremie Maurourad 52), Giorgi Vepkhvadze (Horace Pungea h-t); Leon Power (Fabrice Metz 52), Geoffrey Fabbri (M Fa’asavalu 67); Valentin Ursache, Pierrick Gunther, Pedrie Wannenburg
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)