Wednesday 11 December 2019

Henderson 'refeshed' by return as Cooney penalty edges Ulster to victory

Bath 16 Ulster 17

Henderson: “We talk a lot about getting excited about Europe, getting the opportunity to play a lot of teams that you wouldn’t get to play usually and not letting those opportunities pass you by.” Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
Henderson: “We talk a lot about getting excited about Europe, getting the opportunity to play a lot of teams that you wouldn’t get to play usually and not letting those opportunities pass you by.” Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

Jonathan Bradley

If Iain Henderson has been suffering from any World Cup hangover, there was no sign of it after leading Ulster to a one-point win over Bath in the opening game of his side's Champions Cup campaign.

Tense and rarely free-flowing but with plenty of the requisite grit, the province's victory by the narrowest of margins came via a 71st-minute John Cooney penalty and a late defensive stand that saw Jacob Stockdale intercept what would have been a match-winning scoring pass for the hosts with the clock deep into the red.

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16 November 2019; Jacob Stockdale of Ulster takes the ball from Semesa Rokoduguni of Bath to secure Ulster's victory during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 3 Round 1 match between Bath and Ulster at The Recreation Ground in Bath, England. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
16 November 2019; Jacob Stockdale of Ulster takes the ball from Semesa Rokoduguni of Bath to secure Ulster's victory during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 3 Round 1 match between Bath and Ulster at The Recreation Ground in Bath, England. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

Seated in the back of The Rec after starting his tenure as Ulster skipper with a win, Henderson said the energy and enthusiasm shown by his team-mates in training this week has been refreshing in the wake of Ireland's World Cup exit to New Zealand a little under a month ago.

"The week actually felt a lot different to what I've been involved in before (with Ulster)," said Rory Best's successor of his first action since that dispiriting quarter-final thumping in Tokyo.

"Coming back in the energy has been unbelievable about the place. There's been a different, not style, to training but just a different set-up to the days, and the lads are buzzing. There's competition in training and excitement that's next level. To come back into that is utterly refreshing.

"It's a very good place to be in and a positive place to be in. It's been a class week and all I can say is I'm looking forward to the next one."

16 November 2019; Alan O'Connor of Ulster during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 3 Round 1 match between Bath and Ulster at The Recreation Ground in Bath, England. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
16 November 2019; Alan O'Connor of Ulster during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 3 Round 1 match between Bath and Ulster at The Recreation Ground in Bath, England. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

Captaincy

Henderson was confirmed as captain only one day before joining Joe Schmidt's World Cup camp and added that the wait to lead his side out in a permanent capacity for the first time has felt a long one.

"During the summer when Dan (McFarland) called me in and we had the chat about the captaincy it was quite difficult because I really wanted to get stuck back in with the lads immediately," he said.

"To have to disappear for three-and-a-half months was tough. I've been itching to get back in and to get into training last week and see how intense it was, and then be involved this week, it's been class.

Rob Lyttle of Ulster scores his side's second try. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
Rob Lyttle of Ulster scores his side's second try. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

"It's something I've been looking forward to for the last eight, nine, ten weeks. I'm delighted to be back in and hopefully next week we take it to another level."

To beat Top 14 giants Clermont back in Belfast for round two on Friday night, such an improvement will no doubt be necessary but, in this instance, it was a commendable show of resilience.

Earning four match points off just 42 per cent possession, it was another day when, thanks to Jared Payne's defence, Ulster looked more impressive when the opposition had their hands on the ball.

In that regard, what was a glaring weakness a few seasons ago appears to have been transformed into something of a strength.

16 November 2019; Billy Burns of Ulster during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 3 Round 1 match between Bath and Ulster at The Recreation Ground in Bath, England. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
16 November 2019; Billy Burns of Ulster during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 3 Round 1 match between Bath and Ulster at The Recreation Ground in Bath, England. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

The same can be said for the province's form away from Kingspan Stadium.

From the beginning of 2016 through the first of Dan McFarland's away trips in Europe, Ulster had won just two of their previous nine road fixtures in this competition.

Now, they've won their last three pool fixtures outside of Belfast, the improvement an obvious requirement for any side with designs on making the knockout stages.

"We talk a lot about getting excited about Europe, getting the opportunity to play a lot of teams that you wouldn't get to play usually and not letting those opportunities pass you by," said Henderson.

To see this one finally over the line required an 83rd-minute effort and a late penalty from the boot of Cooney.

The sponsor's man of the match, who had an uncharacteristic shank to end the first half, had converted his own score and another from Rob Lyttle when an Ulster maul eked out an opportunity from the tee in the 71st minute to move his side into the 17-16 lead.

There was still a host of drama to come though. Ulster looked to have won the game with a late scrum penalty and an even later breakdown jackal from the superb Marcell Coetzee but turnovers, of which there were 16 littered throughout the game, would again make matters more difficult than strictly necessary.

At one stage it looked like the last of the afternoon would prove costly indeed. Ulster's players were already celebrating what they thought was a win after Cooney booted the ball into touch off a lineout but the touch-judge intervened to penalise Rob Herring for a crooked throw.

Forced to repel one final charge, Bath looked set to score in the corner before Stockdale, who had been forced to shoot up to pressure the original pass, scrambled back to snag the ball out of the hands of the waiting Semesa Rokoduguni lurking to run in the winning score.

Bath - F Burns (C Cook 62); S Rokoduguni, J Joseph, J Roberts (M Wright 58), R McConnochie (G Hamer-Webb 58); R Priestland, W Chudley; B Obano (L Boyce 48), T Dunn (J Walker 76), W Stuart (C Judge 58); J McNally (E Stooke 58), C Ewels (c), M Williams (J Bayliss 38), S Underhill, Z Mercer.

Ulster - W Addison; R Lyttle (L Ludik 63), L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns (A Curtis 59), J Cooney; J McGrath (E O'Sullivan 7), R Herring, M Moore (T O'Toole 63); Iain Henderson (c), S Carter (A O'Connor 25); M Rea (S Reidy 51), J Murphy, M Coetzee.

Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)

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