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Battling Ulster set up Aironi date with destiny


Ulster's Ian Humphreys kicks a penalty to help his side to victory over Biarritz at Ravenhill on Saturday. Photo: Oliver Mcveigh / Sportsfile

Ulster's Ian Humphreys kicks a penalty to help his side to victory over Biarritz at Ravenhill on Saturday. Photo: Oliver Mcveigh / Sportsfile

Ulster's Ian Humphreys kicks a penalty to help his side to victory over Biarritz at Ravenhill on Saturday. Photo: Oliver Mcveigh / Sportsfile

A valiant Ulster performance, rich in traditional values of spirit and commitment.

There was even the drama of Ian Humphreys' third and final penalty goal from 52 metres, minutes from the end, which won the match to tumultuous acclaim.

And yet you saw the reality on the faces of the Biarritz players and coaches at the finish.

Ulster, although still well placed to reach the last eight as one of the two best runners-up, had probably missed their great chance of a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup. Now, the fate of the pool lies in the hands of the Basque club. A bonus-point victory over Bath this weekend in south-west France will seal their qualification because they have a massively superior one-on-one record against Ulster.

The men of Biarritz knew it as they hurried away for their flight home. "We are still alive, although we have to play a very good game against Bath next week," said their attack coach Jack Isaac.

"The bonus point was important. In the first half we were terrible; we just played very poorly. We completely missed out because even though we had the wind at our backs, we played almost the whole first 40 minutes in our half. That was crazy and our kicking was terrible.

"It was one of those very strange games where the team that had the wind at their backs, played mostly in their own half."

There was a reason for that: shocking kicking and dreadful tactics. With the gale at its height behind them in the first half, Biarritz were, at one stage, trying to drive off the fringes of ruck and maul 70 metres from the Ulster line, to make the occasional yard or two. It didn't seem to occur to them to kick the ball deep into the opposition 22, wind assisted, and attack from there.

At half-time, a 6-0 advantage to Biarritz had appeared wholly inadequate. And it would have been had Ulster not also failed to kick for the corners and apply relentless pressure. Ruan Pienaar managed it once, with a brilliant kick into the right-hand corner. But alas for Ulster, that was a rare moment of precision.

Too many kicks either went out on the full, rolled over the dead-ball line or went down the throat of the Biarritz full-back. It proved ruinously wasteful. By a considerable margin, Ulster had been the better team before half-time. But they weren't thereafter.

Just as the Ravenhill full house expected an all-encompassing second-half performance to sweep Biarritz away, the Basques revived, driving the ball on relentlessly up front into the elements, and demonstrating the patience and technique Ulster had earlier lacked in squandering some try-scoring chances.

Only heroic defence foiled a prolonged, brutally physical assault by the French forwards in a final quarter dominated by the visitors. Yet in a rare lapse, Biarritz conceded the penalty which enabled Humphreys to steer his long-range kick through the posts for victory.

It was enough to secure the win but it is doubtful that it will be enough to win the group.

And an inquest into Ulster's inadequacies is appropriate. They were short on composure near the opposition line, fumbling, knocking on or just squandering some clear try-scoring chances in either half.

It seemed as though the crowd's impatience spread to the players for they lacked both the calm, cool aplomb to make opportunities count, as well as any invention.

By the end, this clearly cost Ulster a significant win that would have sent them to Italy this Saturday with the fate of the pool in their hands. As it is, they know that even a bonus-point victory may not be enough if, as expected, Biarritz skin Bath at Stade Aguilera.

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin said: "All we can do is concentrate on beating Aironi in Italy next weekend. But they are a combative side and that won't be easy. If we do that and even if we score four tries and that's not enough to win the pool, then so be it.

"But today it was our character and it was the trust we put in each other that pulled us through in a very difficult game."

Ulster -- A Darcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best (N Brady 74), BJ Botha (D Fitzpatrick 70), J Muller, D Tuohy, S Ferris, P Wannenberg, W Faloon (C Henry 72).

Biarritz -- D Haylett-Petty; T Ngwenya, M Bosch (M Bond 8), L Tranier, I Balshaw (I Bolakoro 50); D Traille, D Yachvili; E Coetzee (Y Watremez 67), B August, S Marconnet, J Thion, E Lund, M Lund, R Lakafia, I Harionordoquy (capt) (S Vahafoloa h-t).

Ref -- N Owens (Wales).

Irish Independent