Ulster claimed an excellent 25-8 win away to Montpellier to move to the top of Pool 5 in the Heineken Cup.
Mark Anscombe’s men played with intelligence and tactical awareness to pin Montpellier back and frustrate their attacking efforts. The home team were not at their best, but that was in part down to Ulster’s stifling tactics. Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson kicked superbly out of hand for the entire game, while Ulster’s forwards came out on top against their lauded counterparts.
Montpellier enjoyed the better of the opening minutes with scrum-half Jonathan Pélissié giving them a 3-0 lead early on, just after former Ulster wing Timoci Nagusa had shown his pace and power with a break down the right-hand side.
However, thereafter Ulster began to control the game through the intelligent kicking of Pienaar and Jackson, who again looked composed and mature at out-half. The halfback pairing have played a smart territorial game, sending kicks deep into Montpellier’s half and denying them the chance to build phases in threatening positions.
A poor clearing kick from the home side led to Ulster’s try, a scintillating counter-attacking effort. After fielding the wayward punt, Jared Payne swiftly identified space wide on the left and a gorgeous draw and pass by Darren Cave freed Andrew Trimble to burst down the left.
The Ireland wing played a one-two with his international teammate Tommy Bowe to beat the last defender and score, allowing an easy conversion for Jackson.
Ulster had several chances to extend that 7-3 lead from the tee, with Pienaar missing two penalties and Jackson also failing to slot a penalty attempt. All three of those chances came with Montpellier attempting to fight their way out of their own half after Ulster kicks had pinned them deep.
The Top 14 side finally enjoyed some possession inside the Ulster half in the final ten minutes of the half, but Ulster’s defence looked solid and Francois Trinh-Duc attempted an ambitious long-range drop goal in frustration just before the break.
Trimble touches down for Ulster’s 10th-minute try. ©INPHO/Presseye/Matt Mackey.
Ulster were able to extend their lead to 10-3 just four minutes into the second half, when Declan Fitzpatrick won a penalty at scrum time. Pienaar obliged with a well-struck effort from close to 50 metres out.
However, Montpellier finally kicked out of first gear in the 50th minute, when they drove Ulster clean off scrum ball inside their own 22, seconds after John Afoa had entered the fray for his first appearance of the season. Recycled possession allowed wing Yoan Audrin to score in the left-hand corner, with the TMO having to confirm the grounding.
Pélissié failed to convert, and Ulster were able to respond swiftly with another penalty from the assured boot of Pienaar to put their lead back out to 13-8. The away side then came within inches of a second try after some dogged work from Chris Henry allowed them to burst away down the right-hand side.
Tom Court attempted to give a scoring pass inside to Rory Best, but Trinh-Duc just managed to intercept and race away. Ulster turned him over though, and a silly offside from Mamuka Gorgodze allowed Pienaar to kick another penalty for 16-8.
The Georgian back row had a torrid game for Montpellier, and it was his knock on that ended a promising passage of play for the home team as they hammered the Ulster tryline. Dan Tuohy deserves credit for his powerful tackle, but the fact that Gorgodze was hauled off soon after tells the full story.
Ulster returned to the territorial game of the first half in an effort to close out the game, with an infringement from Audrin giving Pienaar the chance to extend Ulster’s lead to 19-8 with 10 minutes left on the clock.
Montpellier looked to have given themselves a final chance when Trinh-Duc released Benoit Sicart underneath the posts, but an heroic saving tackle from Paddy Jackson saw the substitute knock on. Ulster burst away on the counter attack, winning another penalty and Pienaar duly made it 22-8.
Montpellier tried in vain to find openings in the Ulster defence in the closing minutes but with Anscombe having emptied the bench, the visitors were comfortable in seeing out a wonderful victory. A Jackson penalty with the last action of the game was the icing on the cake, making it 25-8
Two wins from two put Ulster in a superb position at the top of Pool 5, and they can now plan for the December double-header against Treviso with some confidence.
Their tactics in Montpellier were perfectly suited to the occasion, playing for territory, winning penalties in the opposition half, and taking their try-scoring chance when it presented itself. Ulster march on.