Magical Marshall gets Ulster off to flyer
Heineken Cup Pool 4
Relief here, not much exultation. Ulster's stated intention is not just to match last season's Heineken Cup final achievement; but to better it.
Such are their high standards, an opening declaration such as this, so alarmingly fitful in their packed out (11,451) Ravenhill fortress, will have offered some encouragement to the now expectant locals.
Even sterner tests requiring more acute powers of concentration will await, but this will do for starters, particularly as Ruan Pienaar's late, late try punished Castres hubris as Ulster ran from their '22' in the last play to secure a barely deserved fifth point.
A bonus in more ways than one.
Castres were able to bully Ulster at times, but the home side had enough guile and pace to prosper. Iain Henderson capped a memorable week by producing an absolutely stunning display.
Paul Marshall, who received a standing ovation on departure, scored a stunning brace of tries. Andrew Trimble had opened the scoring. The game was up from a long way out but the bonus point quest drew urgent attention; on such margins can home quarter-finals or even qualification rest. The five points were hard fought but, just, worth it.
Given the absence of Robbie Diack, Nick Williams and Roger Wilson, Mark Anscombe opted to shift Chris Henry to the base of the scrum, with Mike McComish coming off the bench on the opposite flank to bolster Henderson, just two days after the latter penned his first senior professional contract.
Castres have adopted a typically laissez-faire attitude to this competition, particularly in foreign climes, and the nine changes made to their starting line-up rendered them indistinguishable from that which saw off Clermont on their own patch last weekend.
The French stole an early march, though, winning a penalty in the scrum against Tom Court before Dan Tuohy was pinged for hauling down Rodrigo Capo Ortega in the line-out.
Romain Teulet, their metronomic full-back with the crouched, awkward kicking style, slotted the kick from near the left-hand touchline for a confident start. They like to do confident starts away from home; what happens next is never a fait accompli.
After Paddy Jackson levelled Teulet's fifth minute kick with a facile effort in front of the posts three minutes later, Castres out-half Pierre Bernard offered up a dismal effort to kickstart their roll call of feeble tackle attempts this season.
Ulster had keenly contested a meaningless high ball in midfield before the gliding feet of Jared Payne skated past the flailing Bernard into open country; he judged the acreage and support to perfection before letting Trimble in for the easiest of scores.
Bernard tried to atone from a penalty, curiously from a similar position to where Teulet had been successful -- he failed too.
Ulster were securing quick ball at will and winning ball too.
From one such turnover on half-way, Ulster nabbed an inevitable second try; Henry effecting a wonderful trademark steal on the floor from where Marshall, displaying the true impishness of a nine, chipped into space he had spotted void of a full-back.
All he then had to do was run interrupted for 20 metres and dot down the precisely measured kick. The hard work made the score look so easy; so too Jackson's conversion, from beneath the sticks, for a 20-3 lead by the 22nd minute.
Ulster had so many attacking options, but, worryingly, they fell off for much of the second-half.
Castres haven't earned a reputation for being grinders for nothing though and they spent much of the next 10 minutes using their gnarled grunters to force an unlikely avenue back into the match.
Ulster repelled stoically enough of what Castres threw at them with Court, Johann Muller, Rory Best and Henderson mountainous in their defence before the French got tired of tunnelling and cast their net wider.
Marshall prevented a certain try when ploughing into his opposite number, but the damage was only postponed. As Ulster over-populated their blind and close-in defence, Bernard's perfectly flighted, flat cross-kick found Marc Andreu unattached on the opposite left wing for a converted try. Jackson did nail a penalty in response, but a sloppy second quarter, allowing Castres to enjoy what they do best, would have enraged Anscombe at the break.
His stirring words had the desired effect, with Marshall scoring just four minutes into the second period as Castres slowly folded their tents. Jackson's long-range penalty after a desultory restart pushed matters to 31-10.
Castres, through Marcel Garvey's crash ball from no distance, again showed how dangerous they can be close in, particularly when the reverse fixture takes place. For this evening, though, they just couldn't get there often enough. In their own frustrating way, neither could Ulster.
Ulster -- J Payne; T Bowe (C Gilroy 65), D Cave, P Wallace (L Marshall 73), A Trimble; P Jackson, P Marshall (R Pienaar 61); T Court, R Best (R Herring 75), J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy (L Stevenson 64); I Henderson, M McComish (C Black 63), C Henry.
Castres -- R Teulet; M Garvey, S Bai, D Kirkpatrick (T Sanchou 50), M Andreu; P Bernard (P Bonnefond 64), T Lacrampe (R Kockott 63); Y Forestieer, M Bonello (M-A Rallier 58), M Coetzee (H Lazar 50), M Rolland (capt) (J Tekori 50), R Ortega, P Faasalele, Y Caballero (A Claassen 69), P Wannenburg (G Marmoiton 78).
Ref -- A Small (RFU)