Ulster give no quarter on march to last eight
Aironi 6 Ulster 43
Having waited so long to set foot again in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, the least Ulster wanted from their day -- a bitterly cold one -- was certainty. And having put Aironi away three times already this season, they were confident of that much.
As it turned out, the only thing we weren't sure of was whether they'd go through as pool winners or one of the two best runners-up.
On 66 minutes, the news came through from Biarritz that the bonus point had been secured there as well, so it was with 'runners-up' stamped on their ticket that Ulster will advance. In the circumstances that was fine with Brian McLaughlin and the couple of hundred Ulster fans who made the trip.
Six tries to none was a fair reflection of the gap between the teams. And two of them for No 8 and man of the match Pedrie Wannenberg illustrated too the influence he had on the game. Along with Stephen Ferris -- who went off with an injured knee, which optimistically was described as not being serious -- he biffed the locals about the place. That one of the six touchdowns came from a penalty try at a scrum told you also of how comfortable Ulster were at that phase.
They were a good deal sharper behind the scrum too, bar wide on the left where Simon Danielli struggled to get into the game. Adam D'Arcy especially looked good when he was given the ball early and in space, and at outhalf Ian Humphreys did what he was supposed to do.
The only issue they had was in getting back into top gear, having found it so early, and then gone into neutral. Ulster started like they were going to blow Aironi away, moving them all over the field in a burst of continuous rugby from the first whistle, which ended with a penalty for Ian Humphreys after five minutes. It was the perfect start: everyone got to handle or contribute in that opening sequence and the message they delivered to their hosts was unambiguous.
It soon started to get a bit mixed however. At first it didn't seem like much but by the end of the half it had become a distinct trend: when it came to the final third of the field Ulster would either put the pass to ground or concede a penalty.
The exception was the move which yielded a try for Andrew Trimble on 27 minutes, a perfectly executed operation starting with Wannenberg's pass to Ruan Pienaar off the back of a scrum 60 metres out.
At half-time, it was only 10-6 to Ulster and they had made enough mistakes in that 40 minutes to concern everyone who had made the trip. It's a bit rich to suggest that the power of McLaughlin's oratory at the break inspired the turnaround in the second half. Rather it was unforced errors by the home team that put Ulster on the right road.
First, Julien Laharrague stuck the ball out of play after it had been carried into his own 22, offering up a lineout about six metres from his own line. The catch and drive was textbook stuff and Wannenberg came up with the ball.
A few minutes later the ordinary Rod Penney was guilty of needless crossing and Humphreys popped the penalty into the corner. Step forward Wannenberg again. The conversion from the outhalf put Ulster 24-6 ahead and the primary business of the day -- winning the game -- had been sorted. The bit about the bonus followed soon after.
Just before the hour mark Ulster dismantled an Aironi scrum five metres out and referee Christophe Berdos took off as if to award the penalty try.
Then he changed his mind, and from the reset he made the run that clearly was in his mind the first time.
For a while then -- encouraged by the news from Biarritz that the home team were struggling to get their own bonus -- the Ulster supporters reckoned they would be going home as pool winners. They were able to cope with the disappointment of that not working out.
The final quarter was a canter for Ulster with further tries from replacement Chris Henry and Danielli. It was also an opportunity for the impressive David McIlwaine, another from the crop of promising Ulster backs, to get a run.
All smiles then as the happy band made their way back to Belfast. They'll be queuing up to make the next trip.
Scorers -- Aironi: T Tebaldi pen; J Marshall drop-goal Ulster: Penalty try; P Wannenberg two tries; A Trimble, C Henry, S Danielli try each; I Humphreys pen, 5 cons, pen.
Aironi: J Laharrague (R Boccino 52); P Canavosio, R Penney, G Pavan (G Pizarro 50), M Pratichetti; J Marshall, M Wilson (T Tebaldi 15); M Aguero (S Perugini 60), F Onagaro (R Santamaria 72), F Staibano (A De Marchi 72), M Bortolami, Q Geldenhuys (capt, C del Fava 60), V Liebenberg (A Birchall 47), J Sole, J Erasmus.
Ulster: A D'Arcy; A Trimble (D McIlwaine 66), N Spence, P Wallace (I Whitten 72), S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar (P Marshall 68); T Court, N Brady (A Kyriacou 70), D Fitzpatrick (B Young 60), J Muller, D Tuohy (T Barker 70), S Ferris, P Wannenberg, W Faloon.
Referee: C Berdos (France)
Sunday Indo Sport