Ulster fail to secure bonus in victory
Ulster 27 Montpellier 16
THIS win almost certainly put Ulster into the quarter-finals but if they want to be back at Ravenhill in April they'll need serious improvement at Welford Road next weekend.
Mark Anscombe's men made heavy weather of dealing with this second-string Montpellier side and the coach has a week to address the sloppiness that pervaded his side's display.
Ulster failed to secure the bonus point that would have given them a cushion against Leicester, who should dismiss Treviso this afternoon -- if they score four tries in Italy it will mean they simply need to beat Ulster and deny them a bonus point to top the pool.
As usual, Ruan Pienaar put his head above the parapet of mediocrity to drag his side through with a series of clever kicks that set up the field position for scores, but it was uninspiring stuff.
In front of Ireland assistant coaches Les Kiss and John Plumtree, few of the Ireland hopefuls really excelled, although Paddy Jackson's sublime cross-kick for Robbie Diack's opening try would have caught the eye, while Rory Best's return was a welcome boost as the hooker got through 70 good minutes.
By then, the jig was all but up even though the French side hung in until half-time, when they trailed 17-13.
Ulster's sloppy start was underlined by Pienaar shanking his first attempt at goal badly wide and it was Montpellier who got off the mark first as France U-20 scrum-half Eric Escande punished Diack for going off his feet at the ruck.
Any moves of promise were brought to a halt by the hosts' inaccuracy as Nick Williams, Tom Court and Pienaar were all guilty of knock-ons.
It was little surprise that it was Jared Payne who restored some order to the Ulster attack as he started the move that led to their opening try on 24 minutes with a clever counter-attack. The initial drive was halted, but with momentum behind him Jackson spotted Diack on the left wing and angled an inch-perfect kick for the flanker, who gathered well and held off Lucas Dupont to score.
That lifted the mood as Pienaar converted and the score seemed to rattle Montpellier, whose mistakes led to the Springbok extending the lead minutes later with a try of his own.
Enzo Selponi failed to deal with a high kick and Chris Henry gladly accepted the loose ball and returned it deep into the away team's territory. Pienaar went for an outside-of-the-boot chip that Dupont was unable to collect, the ball ricocheted off Craig Gilroy and popped back into the scrum-half's hands as he flopped over and converted his own score.
At 14-3 one might have expected the visitors to wilt, but Ulster's indiscipline allowed them a way back in as Selponi sent a penalty to touch and, although the hosts appeared to have dealt with the line-out maul, hooker Charles Geli managed to break away. Gilroy stopped him short of the line, but Escande moved the ball to Robins Tchale-Watchou and Pienaar wasn't going to stop the big second row from close range.
Escande converted, before adding a penalty with the last kick of the half to make it a four-point game.
Tom Court's prowess at the first scrum of the second half allowed Pienaar to restore Ulster's seven-point lead with a penalty, but the impressive Escande pegged it back to four with a penalty after the French scrum got on top in reply.
Ulster's first-half inaccuracy followed them into the second and was summed up when Jackson threaded another clever kick behind the defence and, between them, Darren Cave, Gilroy and Andrew Trimble got in each other's way as they tried to touch down, with the latter duo clashing heads in the process.
Gilroy was forced off and will be a doubt for Welford Road, but he wasn't missed a minute later as tighthead prop John Afoa did his best impression of a winger. Pienaar chipped ahead and the bounce hopped over Escande and Payne and into the arms of the chasing former All Black, who headed for the sticks.
Pienaar converted and Ulster were a try away from the bonus, but back came Montpellier who, despite having nothing to play for, wouldn't lie down. Ulster's defence held firm this time, though, with Best forcing the crucial penalty on the deck.
Still, Ulster's basics let them down. Jackson forced a scrum in prime attacking position with a choke tackle, but Montpellier won it against the head and that led to a chance for Escande to narrow the gap, but he sent his easiest attempt of the night wide.
Pienaar managed to get over the line after Benoit Paillaugue's knock-on, but he was held up by Pierre Berard's brilliant covering tackle, while Michael Allen put a foot in touch as he dotted down as the clock kept on ticking and eventually ran out without that fourth try.
It might cost them, but they scarcely deserved better.
ULSTER -- J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy (M Allen 56); P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court (C Black 58), R Best (R Herring 71), J Afoa (D Fitzpatrick 61); J Muller (capt) (I Henderson 62), D Tuohy; R Diack (S Doyle 71), C Henry, N Williams (R Wilson h-t).
MONTPELLIER -- A Floch (P Berard 59); Y Artru (T Nagusa h-t), A Tuitavke, T Combezou, L Dupont; E Selponi (B Paillaugue 38), E Escande; N Leleimalefaga (M Nariashvili 62), C Geli (capt), M Bustos (P Faanunu 62); M Demarco, R Tchale-Watchou (M Ivaldi 79); K Galletier (F Quercy 4), A Bias, J Beattie.
Ref -- W Barnes (RFU)