Ulster win ugly in dour battle
ULSTER 22 BATH 18
After the first quarter at a sunny Ravenhill yesterday, the people you felt most for were those Ulster supporters who had turned up during the week to clear snow off the pitch.
A fine community effort, and for what -- to see them trail 15-3? Their team had been circling the self-destruct button for much of that period and twice managed to hit it full-on. It was not for this that the Ulster faithful had marched down Onslow Parade to do their duty.
By the end of the fourth quarter, the same volunteers in the disappointing crowd of 8,247 were mightily relieved that their team had turned things around. And minutes later their mood improved further when news came through from Italy that Aironi had produced as big an upset as this competition has ever seen. So Ulster go to Bath next weekend in second place in the pool, and with Biarritz still to come to Ravenhill, you can imagine the frequency with which the word 'qualifying' is being mentioned around these parts.
Ulster have done really well to turn their season around in the last month when it was heading south. Quite how they have done it though is not clear. At least not to us. And consequently you wouldn't be overly confident about them going where they haven't gone since winning the competition in 1999.
Neither are we sure how referee Jerome Garces gave the home team a scrum when Bath had them under the pump with the clock ticking down. But the Mr Garces's brain must have been fried by that stage given what had gone on at the scrum. For sure he got a few decisions wrong but you have to feel for a referee who is dealing with players who jerk him -- and the paying spectators as well -- around for the 80 minutes.
We look forward to the stats here, but not the re-run. Remarkably -- and you could criticise the referee for not taking a baseball bat to the front rows never mind a selection of coloured cards -- only one player saw yellow for this carry-on. David Flatman was given 10 minutes off when Bath were 15-3 up in the first half. And when Ulster then were penalised at the next scrum series, it looked like the home team would never get to grips with the game.
Remember that Bath have suffered badly in the physical stuff this season and, against a pack of Ulster's bulk, you felt the home side would look to give them abuse at every opportunity. So when just such an opportunity presented itself after eight minutes, after Matt Carraro had done brilliantly to catch man-of-the-match Stephen Ferris a couple of metres from the Bath line, you expected an onslaught. And then Ian Humphreys threw a wide pass that was picked off by Jack Cuthbert who did brilliantly to score from about 75 metres. The out-half threw a few howlers in fairness.
It wasn't so much that the pass had been intercepted, rather it shouldn't have been thrown in the first place. Much about Ulster is desperately predictable and repeatedly Bath were able to make spot tackles without having had to think too hard. And because Ulster's ball security was also poor, they ended up turning over more ball than they should have. Were it not for Bath's dodgy handling, this could have had a very different ending.
Bath were already three points clear when Cuthbert ran his race, holding off Simon Danielli at the finish, thanks to an Olly Barkley penalty in the second minute. Humphreys pulled back three points after the sickener but then they gifted another try to Bath. This time Adam D'Arcy fumbled a box-kick 40 metres from his own posts -- Lewis Moody gathered and took off, but Nigel Brady will be unhappy with how easy his attempted tackle was fended off.
To balance the books Bath threw an intercept of their own, for Pedrie Wannenberg to finish from long range. The conversion from Humphreys made it 15-10 and he picked off another three -- yes it was for a scrum penalty -- just before the break. Despite Barkley picking up another three points early in the second half, the third quarter was Ulster's best of the match. With Ferris rampant, and Nevin Spence showing well for ball, and the referee blowing Bath off the park, Ulster weren't short of ball. And Humphreys was striking it well, picking off penalties to put a run of nine points together to leave them 22-18 in front on 65 minutes.
They invited Bath back into it however. A quick throw from Danielli in his own 22, at a stage when their lineout had recovered its mojo and when they didn't need to be doing anything rash, almost undid them. They were hanging on by the end. Brave and committed certainly, but desperately in need of something special.
Scorers -- Ulster: P Wannenberg try; I Humphreys 5 pens, con; Bath: J Cuthbert, L Moody try each; O Barkley 2 pens, con.
Ulster: A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, N Brady, BJ Botha, J Muller (Capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, P Wannenberg, C Henry (W Faloon 57)
Bath: J Cuthbert; M Carraro, M Banahan, O Barkley, T Biggs (N Abendanon 16); S Vesty, M Claasens (Capt)(M McMillan 75); D Flatman (yc 27-37; D Barnes 70), L Mears (P Dixon 66, D Wilson (D Bell 61), S Hooper, D Grewcock (N Fernandez Lobbe 64), A Beattie (B Skirving 61), S Taylor, L Moody
Referee: J Garces (France)