Ulster march forward to grind out ugly victory
Castres 8 Ulster 9:It is all about tight margins in the Heineken Cup. The last time Ulster scored just nine points in a game, they were pipped 10-9 by Northampton Saints in Ravenhill before Christmas, a defeat which really undermined their campaign.
Few would have thought that nine points would be sufficient for Ulster to win their first competitive game on French soil, but the low scoring was in keeping with a dismal encounter.
The travelling hundreds celebrated at the end and the players went to them to acknowledge the significance of the victory, but few in Ulster will harbour notions of going one better than last year if they don’t get their injured players back on the park.
Few sides would be expected to thrive with those injuries and coach Mark Anscombe said a top priority for the next couple of weeks was to clear out the casualty department.
“There are 13 or 14 unavailable for one reason or another for this one. Two or three of them are only a couple of weeks away so hopefully we’ll be at full strength soon.
“When you get tot he play-off time of the year everyone wants to pick their best squad and we are no different in that. We’ll see where we are and who is available in a couple of months time, but there is an opportunity now to regroup,” added Anscombe.
Any hopes of Ulster securing a bonus point disintegrated when their lineout collapsed in the opening half, and in the end they coughed up half a dozen of their own throws, many of them deep in enemy territory.
Rory Best put his hand up and said the lineout typified a lot of what went wrong, especially in the opening half when they had whatever advantage from the swirling wind.
“Everything was not even a couple of per cent off, we were probably ten or 15 per cent off. I allowed a bit much for the wind to bring it in and they were crooked . . . It puts a lot of pressure on you as a team if you can’t win your lineout . . . Ultimately we pride ourselves in our set piece and when we get it right we show what we can do,” said Best.
Castres, beaten at home once once this season, may have been out of contention but it was clear they had their sleeves rolled up for a scrap and set out their stall when centre Remi Lamerat sliced through for an eighth minute try.
Switched to number nine
Ruan Pienaar, who did well at outhalf but even better when he switched to number nine, steered a good penalty from the right wing through the swaying posts to settle Ulster’s nerves.
However, Ulster just could not get on the front foot and an exchange of penalties between Pienaar and Rory Kockott left in 8-6 at the break.
It got more worrying for Ulster after the restart as Castres penned them back inside their own half for most of the third quarter and with notions of a bonus point dead and buried, the real fear now was that Ulster wouldn’t even win the match.
But they won good field possession from a dominant scrum and the darting runs of Craig Gilroy, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble stretched the home defence and eventually Pienaar was presented with a kick in front of the posts to edge them in front with 16 minutes left.
After that it was a matter of sticking the ball up the jersey and winding the clock down and the superb Ulster pack was more than capable of that.
CASTRES: P Bernard; M Evans, S Bai, R Lamerat, M Garvey; R Tales, R Kockott; Y Forestier, M Rallier, A Peikrishvili; M Rolland, C Samson; M Babillot, P Faasalele, P Wannenburg. Replacements: S Taumoepeau for Forestier (46 mins), M Andreu for Bai (52 mins), M Lazar for Peikrishvili (53 mins), T Lacrampe for Kockott (55 mins), J Bornman for Babillot (56 mins), P Bonnefond for Lamerat (63 mins), I Tekori for Wannenburg (69 mins).
ULSTER: C Gilroy; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, M Allen; R Pienaar, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; L Stevenson, N McComb; R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson. Replacements: I Henderson for Wilson (27 mins), P Jackson for Marshall (55 mins). Referee: N Owens (WRU).