Fired-up Pienaar crucial if Northern lights are to shine
Published 12/12/2010 | 05:00
If Ulster want to reach the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup they must first overcome the problems they are having at scrum half with Ruan Pienaar. He just doesn't convey the impression of someone who is enjoying himself in Belfast and is playing nothing like what his pedigree would suggest he is capable of.
Yesterday he was largely irrelevant apart from his passing, and overall he continues to be major disappointment for me. But what is making this all the more important for Ulster is that he is in such a pivotal position on the team that any kind of semblance of form would really make a big difference to Ulster's game and could prove to be a great catalyst for them for the remainder of the season.
Ultimately if Pienaar comes into form it will benefit the team across the board. It will give them confidence and hopefully lead to Ian Humphreys dictating play to a much greater effect than he has been doing.
Yesterday's game at Ravenhill was played out between two sides who were struggling to emerge from what have been lengthy valley periods. Bath have only won two from nine in their domestic league and Ulster too have been struggling, particularly at home in the Magners League.
However, these back-to-back games just before Christmas are crucial, not just to the fortunes of the teams in the Heineken Cup but also to a club's fortune for the entire season.
And in order for teams to get a bit of impetus into their season it's vital that they win both of their back-to-back games.
Bath had a dream start at Ravenhill, a penalty from Olly Barkley after four minutes and then a length-of-the-field interception by Jack Cuthbert put them 10 points up in as many minutes. A penalty by Humphries followed, which reduced the deficit for Ulster. But some of the sloppiest and least committed defending at this level of the game allowed Lewis Moody in for another try which put Bath 15-3 up on 24 minutes.
Then you had the unusual sight of a second interception from Pedrie Wannenburg who read a reasonably good pass from Simon Taylor on the halfway line and followed through to score under the posts and close the gap for Ulster.
That exchange of intercepts probably typified what had been a very scrappy and largely unimpressive performance from both sides.
Ulster had massively dominated the territory and possession right through the first half but they still managed to go in at half time two points down. Immediately after the break they conceded another three points and the gap was back to five.
At this stage Bath were beginning to establish a grip on the game and Moody was leading by example. The only two Ulster players who were really stepping up to the plate were Stephen Ferris and Wannenburg and young Nevin Spence in the centre. Wannenburg works very well with his back-row colleague Ferris. They are a formidable pair, the Irish international was simply immense.
In fact, Ulster and Ireland are simply different entities in his absence regardless of who is replaced by him. I don't think I've seen him play better than he played yesterday.
Interestingly, on a weekend that has coaches deliberately leaning towards the physical type of player in selecting their sides Ferris really came into his own against a physical Bath side.
If he continues to play at this level for the remainder of the season then we are certainly in for some very entertaining rugby from both Ulster and Ireland.
Despite having performed in fits and starts and despite having relied on the pressure that they applied and the boot of Ian Humphries, Ulster now find themselves in a good place.
As a consequence of Biarritz losing to Aironi, Ulster have a wonderful opportunity to get into the knockout stages. They are away to Bath next week and then in January they are home to Biarritz before finishing away to Aironi. Those three games are well within their grasp and particularly if they can get themselves sorted out at half back.