Jim Glennon: Ulster's achievement should not be underestimated
Sensational away defeat of France's form team makes home quarter-final realistic goal
Aside from Harlequins' visit to Clermont, Ulster's trip to Montpellier was probably the toughest trip of this Heineken Cup weekend.
The form team in France, almost unassailable at home, top of the Top 14 and coming off a recent 40-point hockeying of Clermont, they were thought to have the capacity to go a long way in the tournament. Having allowed Leicester to depart Ravenhill last week with a crucial losing bonus point, earning one for themselves yesterday was probably Ulster's realistic target from the assignment. To come home victorious and free of serious injury, as they did, is a massive boost and potential season changer.
Ruan Pienaar started in the scrumhalf slot in place of Paul Marshall. It's on days like this that the worth of Pienaar is clear for all to see – the calmest of heads, directing traffic, varying his game with real rugby intelligence and kicking his goals. Without doubt he was Ulster's key man yesterday and is the foundation for this side's long-term reconstruction project.
It's worth noting too that when, 12 months ago, a similar trip was made south to Castres, Pienaar was in the No 10 jersey with young Paddy Jackson on the bench. Yesterday evidenced the sustained progression of Jackson who, in the white heat of European Cup rugby in the south of France, acquitted himself well in the pivotal outhalf position against an old-school French rogue in Francois Trinh-Duc.
One of the hallmarks, if not the ultimate cornerstone, of rugby in this part of the world is the scrum. Montpellier may be a team who like to throw the ball around and put on a show for the fans but, like all French teams, they place great emphasis on a formidable scrum as a weapon of domination rather than containment – hence the presence of the wily Argentinian Mario Ledesma as forwards coach.
Equally, however, the continued progress of the Ulster scrum has been a feature of Mark Anscombe's tenure as coach. While the recruitment of tighthead John Afoa by David Humphreys was a trademark astute signing, and his return to the matchday squad a major boost, one cannot fail to be be impressed by the consistency of Tom Court at loose-head.
It must be remembered that the guy arrived in Ireland as, essentially, a nobody. A shotputter by trade, he was Irish-qualified and physically a fit for rugby. To see him now, getting to grips with Dan Cole a week ago, and Maximiliano Bustos and the renowned Nicolas Mas yesterday without suffering undue hardship and indeed inflicting some of his own, shows the great strides he has made, and continues to make.
Interestingly too, the changed scrum laws are bringing back the traditional front-row contest of old with a renewed emphasis on technique and the locks, as their title infers, locking it out. For me, the physical brutish battle of the second-rows around the pitch was a highlight yesterday, with Scottish international Jim Hamilton and Ulster skipper Johann Muller, in particular, seeing a lot of each other.
The loss of Nick Williams through injury was a blow to Ulster – his incredible strength and aggression is always a huge asset, especially in France. What really impressed me however was, although he was undoubtedly missed in the early physical exchanges, the alternative combination of Roger Wilson at No 8 and Robbie Diack on the blindside, with Chris Henry at open-side, delivered, crucially at the breakdown.
Probably the only controversial selection by Anscombe was the continued confinement of Iain Henderson to the bench – the young forward is a serious prospect, and possibly the finest athlete we've produced in the forwards since Sean O'Brien. While a similar decision for the Leicester game may have been contentious, his impact when introduced was massive.
His deployment in that role is significant not just for it's strategic potential but also as an indicator of the strength of Ulster's 23-man match-squad. Joe Schmidt is an outstanding exponent of the art of squad-management, tailoring his selections to the needs of a specific challenge in the context of the resources available and Anscombe is effective in this regard too.
An excellent afternoon's work for Ulster. The back-to-back games against Treviso in December will be a test, but could put them in an unassailable position at the top of their pool. The capacity of the new Ravenhill looks like being tested too with a home quarter-final in April already a live possibility.