Humphreys sinks Bath to set up Biarritz showdown
BATH 22 ULSTER 26
Bath expected the return of Butch James to mark an end to a wretched sequence of results, and the South Africa outside-half did provide a match that was as heated as the weather was cold with its turning point, only not in the manner the Premiership strugglers envisaged
Bath took the lead after 34 seconds with a try James had helped create with a trademark long pass and they held on to it until the end of the third quarter when they were down to 14 men with James in the sin-bin for getting involved in a scrap between Dan Tuohy and Michael Claassens.
If the yellow card was harsh, given that James did no more than push Tuohy, it was the third time his exuberance led to a loss of self-control.
On the first occasion, he charged into his opposite number, Ian Humphreys, late and he later had a spat with Nevin Spence.
Bath, who were leading 14-13, looked to have survived James' absence when Ulster took play through 19 phases and eventually worked the space for Spence to cross in the corner and give his side a lead they were not to lose as they recorded their fourth victory over Bath, who have failed to win seven of their last eight matches, in 14 months.
Bath had blown a 12-point lead in Ravenhill the previous week and, despite going eight points ahead yesterday, a lack of cohesion cost them.
The win puts Ulster three points behind Biarritz at the top of the pool, but head coach Brian McLaughlin warned his side they must return their attentions to their Magners League aspirations with a busy festive period on the horizon.
"We've got two big games coming up in the Magners -- at home to Leinster on the day after Boxing Day and Munster in Limerick on New Year's Day," McLaughlin said. "The big games just keep coming."
And, despite the win, McLaughlin was not overly impressed by his side's performance. "We are just very happy to have a win today," he said.
"We knew we had a tough job. In the first few minutes we looked a bit ropey but we clawed our way back to 14-13.
"Actually, I didn't think we played that well today. Bath put us under ferocious pressure at times. We upped the intensity, though, and we cut our cloth a bit in the second half, playing a wee bit more the percentages.
"We knuckled down and knew what we had to do. If we had control we had a chance. I said to the players afterwards: 'We've done nothing yet'. We've just got to keep winning," added McLaughlin.
The match only went ahead after spectators helped clear snow from the terraces and the redoubtable Ulster were hardly ideal opponents for a side looking to find itself.
James tried to provide attacking inspiration, but little came off for him and Bath struggled to develop phases. They made too many mistakes to sustain pressure while Ulster, after the very beginning when Bobby Diack lost control of the kick-off and Bath took possession for Lee Mears to free Matt Carraro, were more deliberate and organised.
Humphreys needed some treatment after being battered by James and he recovered to run the game. He was fortunate that an early error, when Bath were five points up, did not result in a try. His clearance kick was charged down by Claassens but the ball bounced over the scrumhalf's head a few metres out and away from Carraro.
Otherwise Humphreys was immaculate, landing six kicks out of six, compared to Olly Barkley's four from seven, attacking the line and using his forwards to carry and recycle. There was no discernible pattern to Bath's approach, and once Ulster had scored with their first attack, the No 8 Diack exploiting Barkley's defensive uncertainty to free Adam D'Arcy, they had the sharper focus.
Bath led 14-13 at the interval, but were 23-14 down when Spence was sent to the sin-bin for a breakdown offence committed by Willy Faloon.
Barkley's fourth penalty and a Matt Banahan try created by Nick Abendanon and James brought them to within a point.
England's captian Lewis Moody then summed up his side's plight by holding on after tackling D'Arcy. Humphreys kicked the penalty and Ulster kept the ball for four minutes at the end to sustain their ambition of making the quarter-finals for the first time since 1999, while Bath again found themselves frozen out.
Scorers -- Bath: Carraro, Banahan try each, Barkley 4 pens. Ulster: D'Arcy, Spence try each, Humphreys 2 cons, 4 pens
Bath: Cuthbert (Abendanon 57); Carraro, Barkley, Hape, Banahan; James, Claassens; Flatman (Barnes 51), Mears, Wilson, Hooper, Grewcock (Fernandez-Lobbe 57), Beattie (Skirving 57), Moody, Taylor
Ulster: D'Arcy; Trimble, Spence, Wallace, Danielli; Humphreys, Pienaar; Court (McAllister 70), Brady, Botha, Muller, Tuohy (Barker 57), Wannenburg, Faloon, Diack (Henry 57)
Referee: P Gauzere (Fra)