Paddy Jackson guides Ulster to crucial victory as Toulouse crumble
Ulster 38-0 Toulouse
Ulster breathed life back into their Champions Cup campaign with a stunning victory at Kingspan Park last night but it was the manner of their performance that will give them real hope of completing the double over Toulouse in France next weekend.
Given Ulster's luckless run of injuries, Les Kiss would have happily taken any kind of victory prior to kick-off but to win so convincingly with a bonus point and to keep Toulouse scoreless was something truly remarkable.
Ulster were guided by Paddy Jackson, who looked back to his best, while outside of him, Stuart McCloskey further enhanced his rapidly growing reputation with another brilliant performance.
As is always the case with French teams, Toulouse are a different beast on the road and the fact that they have now lost four of their last five games only further illustrates the point, but they were a rudderless rabble.
Guy Noves may have departed to take over as France's head coach but his former team's spineless performance was very much in keeping with the national side who turned up at the World Cup.
It was a first half in which Wayne Barnes unsurprisingly played a major role but in the referee's defence, the three yellow cards that he brandished were all very much warranted.
Ulster took the game to Toulouse from the off, with Jackson linking brilliantly with McCloskey, who destroyed former England out-half Toby Flood in midfield.
Flood had let Ulster off the hook with a missed penalty inside quarter of an hour before Toulouse's talismanic No 8 Louis Picamoles was forced off with an arm injury.
That sparked the home crowd into voice and their team responded when Nick Williams crashed his way over the whitewash for a deserved try after 23 minutes.
Rory Best must surely be close to being named as Ireland's next captain and he certainly played a key role in the build-up.
Ulster had the chance to take a shot at goal that you would have fancied Jackson to slot but instead Best pointed to the corner and his bravery was rewarded.
The lineout move didn't quite come off but Ulster remained calm and spread the ball wide before No 8 Williams scored from close range.
Jackson added the extras for a 7-0 lead as the victors grew in frustration. Scrum-half Sebastian Bezy's frustration levels got the better of him five minutes later when he deliberately killed the ball at the breakdown and he spent 10 minutes in the bin.
Jackson fired over the resulting penalty before Flood again dragged a penalty wide.
With Ulster well in control, Williams made a decision that is unfortunately all too common in his game as he cleared Vincent Clerc out of a ruck without using any arms.
It was a rash move on the Kiwi's part and he joined Bezy in the bin.
Just as it looked like the yellow card would dent Ulster's confidence, they responded with a quite brilliant try.
Ruan Pienaar got the ball off the top off a lineout and despite Yacouba Camara attempting to kick the ball out of his hands, he still managed to find Andrew Trimble, who had darted off his wing.
After that, it was all about the footwork and speed of Trimble. The winger has endured a frustrating few months after being left out of Ireland's World Cup squad but he reminded Joe Schmidt of his quality when he took the ball at full tilt before dinking it over the head of the onrushing Clement Poitrenaud and scoring.
Barnes went to his TMO and rightly showed Camara a yellow card for his infringement in the build-up. Jackson converted for a 17-0 lead at the break.
Ulster almost got the second half off to an ideal start when Craig Gilroy got over in the corner but Luke Marshall's pass to him was forward.
Marshall made amends three minutes later, however, when he profited from a moment of absolute brilliance from Pienaar.
Ulster had twice been held up just short of the line before the South African decided on a different tack and his inch-perfect cross-field kick off his weaker left foot found Marshall, who scampered clear and under the posts.
Jackson was again on hand to convert as the hosts went in search of the bonus point.
The vocal home supporters didn't have to wait long, though, and it unsurprisingly arrived courtesy of Jackson and McCloskey's devastating partnership.
Jackson found his man with a gorgeous pass that took former All Black Luke McAlister completely out of the game and with Flood again nowhere to be seen, McCloskey didn't need a second invitation to breeze through the gaping hole and score.
Kiss understandably rang the changes ahead of next week but Ulster remained ruthlessly clinical in everything they did.
Replacement Jean-Marc Doussain almost got over for Toulouse's first points of the evening but a brilliant last-ditch tackle from Trimble kept them scoreless.
It was a mark of Ulster's commitment all evening as to a man they kept alive their hopes of making the knockout stages.
Chris Henry rubbed salt into Toulouse's wounds with a try off a powerful rolling maul after Ulster again went to the corner in the closing stages. Ian Humphreys judged the conversion to perfection as the rout was well and truly complete.
Toulouse's final throw of the dice fittingly resulted in McCloskey forcing a turnover with a textbook choke tackle - something that will have pleased Schmidt even more.
Ulster travel to Toulouse next Saturday and although they are sure to face a backlash, on last night's evidence, they have nothing to fear.
Ulster - L Ludik; A Trimble (R Scholes 78), L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson (I Humphreys 64), R Pienaar (P Marshall 64); M McCall (A Warwick 59), R Best (capt) (R Herring 57), W Herbst (R Lutton 64); A O'Connor, F van der Merwe; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams (R Wilson 52).
Toulouse - C Poitrenaud; V Clerc, G Fickou (A Palisson 64), T Flood, A Bonneval; L McAlister, S Bézy (J M Doussain 57); V Kakovin (C Baille 50), C Flynn (J Marchand 14-19, 50), C Johnston (D Aldegheri 50); Y Maestri (E Maka 66), J Tekori; Y Camara, T Dusautoir (capt), L Picamoles (G Galan 17, G Lamboley h/t).
REF - W Barnes (England)