Saturday 26 May 2018

Ulster wait to learn their fate after routing hapless Oyonnax

Ulster 56 Oyonnax3

Ulster number eight Nick Williams looks for the offload as the Oyonnax defence brings him down in the home side’s crushing victory in Belfast. Photo: Sportsfile/Oliver McVeigh
Ulster number eight Nick Williams looks for the offload as the Oyonnax defence brings him down in the home side’s crushing victory in Belfast. Photo: Sportsfile/Oliver McVeigh
16 January 2016; Kyle McCall, Ulster, is tackled by Ben Ransom, Saracens Photo:Sportsfile
Craig Gilroy, Ulster, is tackled by Duncan Taylor and Marcelo Bosch, Saracens Photo:Sportsfile
BT Sport Pundit Brian O'Driscoll pitch side ahead of the match Photo:Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A dry, chilly day at Ravenhill and a gig where you know Ulster will run through all their hits before a happy, appreciative crowd. Les Kiss would wish that they were all like this. Oyonnax came with a third of the side they'd want to field in a home Top 14 tie that needed winning. So we didn't fetch up here wondering if Ulster would be barging the door down in the final minutes trying to secure a bonus point win.

Rather they had that bit sorted by the break, with the fourth nail in the French coffin coming almost with the last play of the half. Having drawn such a dismal blank last week with Saracens, Ulster needed the five points here to have any chance of surviving to the knockout stages.

"The disappointment and hurt was palpable after last week," Kiss said afterwards. "At the start of the week we said, let's cleanse ourselves with a good session and build on what we had to this week.

"The campaign wasn't perfect - we know that. I guess if anyone had a perfect campaign I'll give you the champions. Our ability to keep fighting away is a strength we have to take on board."

Not only did Ulster get their extras sorted but they got to run through their playbook a couple of times in what was effectively a structured training run. And with minimal casualties other than Kyle McCall, who had the misfortune to tackle Pedrie Wannenburg's shin with his head. There was also, late on, a bizarre bit of musical chairs between Ian Humphreys and Paddy Jackson, but you imagine the former can't have been that badly hurt if he came on to the field for a second time with only a couple of minutes left.

It was at that point that new Ireland captain Rory Best came on as well, in a choreographed move to allow the nearly full house to salute their hero.

By then Best's team were locked into try-scoring mode, doing their utmost to boost their stats ahead of today if the calculators come out to decide on the best two runners-up. Ulster finished with eight touchdowns for a positive points difference of 60, with 21 tries scored. For virtually all of the last quarter, however, - when the only traffic light should have been green - they were tryless.

They started the points-gathering as early as the second minute when Oyonnax gave them a handy foothold in their 22, and Rob Herring got over. That allowed Jackson a straightforward conversion - he would finish with five from five, and rarely has he enjoyed a run as much where he was able to spray passes left and right with virtually everything going to hand.

One of the few occasions where it didn't came when he was faced with a two on one a few minutes later, and threw a howler. That aside, it was largely fast and accurate, and the try for replacement Rory Scholes on 27 minutes was first class, featuring the outstanding passing ability of Jared Payne. It will be some consolation to Joe Schmidt that the Kiwi is already playing so well after his injury lay-off.

Robbie Henshaw and Payne may be Schmidt's first-choice combination against Wales in a fortnight but the form of Luke Marshall in Ulster's midfield is irrepressible. For a player whose career looked in the balance a year ago because of concussion, his comeback has been something else.

Marshall didn't get on the scoreline here but he did lots of things right. So too did the back row, where the man of the match award went to Nick Williams, who will be sorely missed when he heads to Cardiff in the summer.

"Yeah it's going to be hard to fill that hole for sure but we're working away on that and hopefully the solution is good," Kiss said. "Nick has an influence and gets over the gainline for you."

Against opposition like this it wasn't the toughest task the number eight has ever taken on. Every time he made ground he had plenty of support piling in behind him.

It remains to be seen if it was all enough for Ulster to get into the knockouts, and for Ireland's provinces to avoid their first blank on that scoresheet since 1998.

Scorers - Ulster: Herring, Cave, Scholes, Reidy, Gilroy, Diack, Payne try each; Humphreys try, 3 cons, Jackson 5 cons). Oyonnax: Clegg pen

Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave (R Scholes 62), L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson (I Humphreys 52- 71, 78), P Marshall (D Shanahan 69), K McCall (C Black 6), R Herring (capt) (R Best 74), R Lutton, A O'Connor, F van der Merwe (R Wilson 52), R Diack, N Williams (C Ross 60), S Reidy.

Oyonnax: F Denos; D Ikpefan, G Bousses, A Taufa (E Sheridan 66), D Codjo; R Clegg (R Lespinas 57), J Blanc; S Tonga'uiha (L Delboubles 67), T Bordes (J Marourard 52), G Vepkhvadze (H Pungea ht), L Power (F Metz 52), (M Fa'asavalu 69), V Ursache, P Wannenburg, P Gunther.

Referee: M Mitrea (Italy)

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