Ulster blown away by Racing 92 after promising first quarter
RACING 92 44 ULSTER 12
After the high of their opening weekend win over Leicester, Ulster got a rude awakening in Paris and face an uphill battle to get out of Pool 4 after this comprehensive loss.
Under the lights at Racing’s space-age La Defense Arena, the Irish province played some good rugby but their set-piece let them down badly and, after building a 12-3 first-quarter lead, they were held scoreless for the remainder of the game.
A former prop himself, Dan McFarland needs to perform urgent surgery on the Ulster scrum, while the renowned Racing defensive lineout caused all sorts of issues for Rory Best and Co.
They caused last year’s finalists all sorts of issues with ball in hand, but the French side simply had too many weapons for their visitors who will lament passing up a succession of chances to secure a losing bonus point.
After surviving a long series of phases in which Racing worked their way from their own ’22 into Ulster territory the visitors struck for an excellent opening try.
A well-worked move involving Billy Burns and Jacob Stockdale released Michael Lowry through the middle and the full-back took contact deep in the home side’s half.
Will Addison got the ball at first receiver and opted against throwing the wide pass, cutting back against the grain where he handed Simon Zebo off and put Dave Shanahan over for the try.
Burns converted, but Ulster failed to deal with the kick-off and Kieran Treadwell handed Finn Russell a penalty to get his side off the mark.
A good attacking position came and went for the men in red as Leone Nakarawa picked off Rory Best’s throw.
And things turned in the Parisians’ favour when Nick Timoney and Marty Moore picked Fabien Sanconnie up and dropped him on his head at a ruck, leaving Nigel Owens with little choice but to send the No 8 to the sin-bin.
Rather than wilt, Ulster kept their heads. They survived another Racing surge, before punishing poor discipline from Camille Chat with their second try.
The hooker went off his feet at the breakdown and, although they almost messed up another lineout, the Irish side kept possession thanks to Burns. The out-half then found Craig Gilroy with a superb chip, but the winger failed to spot Lowry on his shoulder.
Unperturbed, Burns put another delicious kick across to Jacob Stockdale and there was no stopping the Ireland star from 5m.
Burns missed the conversion, but Timoney returned with his team nine points in front and playing well.
The one big worry coming into the game was the form of their scrum and, when Stockdale knocked on on the edge of his ’22, the first real test came.
Ulster crumbled and, with penalty advantage on his side, Antonie Claasens picked and drew Stockdale before putting Teddy Iribaren over.
That the scrum-half was even on the pitch as an early tactical replacement was a sign of Racing’s worries, but Russell converted and the home side had found a real weakness.
Not that Ulster’s lineout was functioning either and the next concession led to the French side’s second try for Wenceslas Lauret. Having pinched Best’s throw initially, the flanker was on Olivier Klemenczak’s shoulder to power over after the centre bumped Stockdale out of his way on the back of a Juan Imhoff break.
Their set-piece was under serious pressure, but Ulster were determined to keep playing and Stockdale game close to securing a third try when he popped up on Marcell Coetzee’s shoulder but Zebo’s tackle forced him to knock-on.
Another scrum penalty afforded Russell the chance to make it 20-12 at the break.
They extended that lead within five minutes of the restart. Ulster looked comfortable in defence until Iribaren threw the ball inside to Henry Chavancy and the captain stood Iain Henderson and Coetzee up, drew Lowry and put Imhoff over.
Russell tagged on another penalty after a mistake by Gilroy was compounded by Coetzee’s deliberate knock-on and a real chance to hit back came and when the winger couldn’t complete his off-load to McCloskey after excellent work by the centre.
Ulster kept playing and when they went through the phases they had their hosts in trouble, but Coetzee, Lowry and Angus Kernohan all passed up chances.
Having lost their way somewhat, Racing finally got it together enough to secure the all-important fourth try and it was a score worth waiting for as Russell gathered his own perfectly weighted chip, drew Kernohan and sent Teddy Thomas towards the posts.
The Scot converted and Zebo finally got in on the act in the closing stages off the back off another crumbling scrum, scorching Lowry to score in the corner.
RACING 92 – S Zebo; T Thomas, O Klemenczak (I Paris 66), H Chavancy (capt), J Imhoff (B Volavola 52-58); F Russell (Volovola 73), X Chauveau (T Iribaren 25); G Gogichashvili (V Kakovin 58), C Chat (T Baubigny 58), C Gomes Sa (C Johnston 58); D Bird, L Nakarawa; W Lauret, B Le Roux (F Sanconnie 14-24), A Claasen (J Joseph 58).
ULSTER – M Lowry; C Gilroy, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale (A Kernohan 58); B Burns (J McPhillips 46), D Shanahan (J Stewart 75); A Warwick (E O’Sullivan h-t), R Best (capt) (A McBurney 58), M Moore (R Kane 53); I Henderson, K Treadwell (A O’Connor 58); M Coetzee, J Murphy, N Timoney (S Reidy h-t).
Ref -- N Owens (Wales)