Ulster first team into last eight but not home yet
Ulster 23 Glasgow 6:An unrelenting downpour may have been something of a leveller but it didn’t damped Ravenhill’s spirits unduly as, in matching Northampton’s win at home to Castres, Ulster became the first team to secure qualification for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
Having only scored one try by half-time, despite a territorially dominant first half, they ultimately left themselves only a minute to chase a fourth try and the lack of a bonus point slightly undermines their chances of a home quarter-final.
To achieve the latter, they’ll assuredly need to win next Saturday in Castres and, helpfully, the French outfit are pretty much out of contention for the Heineken Cup again, whatever about the Amlin.
Allied to the rain, which relented only briefly before the kick-off, a strong first scrum by Glasgow – even though an injury crisis meant they could only name one prop on a seven-man bench – briefly dampened the ardour of a capacity crowd, but with the re-energised Man of the Match Tom Court leading the way, Ulster gradually assumed complete ascendancy in that facet, while Nick Williams and co turned the screw in the loose.
If there was a downside, it was Ulster’s occasional inaccuracy at the breakdown.
Save for a third quarter revival, Glasgow didn’t bring much other than a lineout and driving maul, and under an aerial bombardment from Ruan Pienaar, they made far more handling errors.
In the first half especially Pienaar ran the show and there were also some champagne moments from Jared Payne, even not fully fit. The timing of his entries into the line and angles of running are a joy to watch.
Pienaar was his majestic self, his consistently high level of performance maintained yet again despite being on the treadmill without a break for a few years now. And when you have the world’s best kicking scrum-half, out of hand as well as off the ‘tee’, why would you play him at outhalf? All the more so on a teeming wet night like this.
Thrice in the first quarter he put Ulster on the attack deep in Glasgow territory with well-placed kicks for his chasers. Putting boot to ball was generally a more profitable tactic, and after Payne’s deft grubber Moray Low went off his feet for Pienaar to open the scoring.
Nick Williams soon followed up another box kick by Pienaar to force a spillage from Seán Maitland with a thunderous hit. From the ensuing recycle, Paddy Jackson grubbered in behind the defensive line for Peter Murchie to concede a lineout even closer in.
This time, from a maul infield and sequence of pick and goes, the re-born Williams (and crowd favourite) plundered his seventh try in 15 games for Ulster with a typical close-range charge. The crowd knew it would be a score as soon as he picked up the ball.
Pienaar converted for a 10-0 lead; the only blemish on the first half being that it stayed that way as Pienaar continued to keep them on the front foot. Some reprieve came by way of two missed penalties by Duncan Weir, and having led the team out on his 150th cap for his home province, Andrew Trimble was actually too quick in attempting a trademark intercept from a pass by Pyrgos, but for which he would have been out of sight, and so would Ulster.
Instead, Glasgow started the second half with renewed vigour; working their lineout maul up the touchline and Pyrgos emulating Pienaar with a succession of box kicks.
There were also a succession of penalties as the pedantic Monsieur Gauzere drew the wrath of the home crowd for Weir to land two penalties – the second for a decidedly marginal offside decision – either side of binning Iain Henderson for bringing down a maul.
Ulster were beginning to look a little weary, with both Jackson and Payne visibly hobbling. Paul Marshall replaced the former, and Roger Wilson came on for Robbie Diack, with Pienaar moving to outhalf and landing a penalty after Williams instigated a pick-and-go rumble by freeing his hands and offloading to Trimble.
After one more charge, Williams was helped off to a huge roar but the knee injury he sustained could rule him out for some time. With Henderson back, and the Ulster scrum back to its full compliment, it earned a third full penalty, and sixth in all, but Pienaar surprisingly missed. Even so, after a surge by the impressive Henderson, Marshall went to the blindside where Payne dummied DTH Van Der Merwe to score classily if softly.
Pienaar hit the post with the touchline conversion, but Ulster even left themselves a minute to chase an unlikely bonus point after Lewis Stevenson and Chris Henry muscularly engineered a turnover from which Callum Black, Neil McComb and Pienaar worked an overlap for Darren Cave.
He capped a typically industrious night by stepping inside twice for a strong finish. The bonus didn’t come, which jeopardises hopes of a home quarter, but news of the Franklin’s Gardens result drew a roar to interrupt the lap of honour.