ULSTER 27 MONTPELLIER 16
Ulster maintained their 100 per cent record in Europe and virtually secured a place in the quarter-finals of this season’s Heineken Cup with a scrappy but deserved win over the French visitors.
But if the Irish Province want a home quarter-final back at Ravenhill on the first weekend of April they must go to Welford Road on Saturday and defeat Leicester Tigers.
The English Premiership side play Benetton Treviso in Italy on Saturday afternoon and, if as expected, get the win it sets up a winner takes all clash for a home quarter-final in Europe between the two former champions.
Ulster will certainly have to pick up their game as they failed to get into top gear in spite of scoring three tries to stay top of Pool Five and the only unbeaten team in Europe.
The Irish province, with 22 points, should secure a fourth consecutive last eight appearance unless there were some bizarre results over the weekend.
Scrumhalf Eric Escande had given Montpellier a sixth minute lead with a penalty for an offside after home No 9, Ruan Pienaar had missed from wide on the right three minutes earlier.
A scrappy affair developed with Ulster using the width of the pitch and going through phases but knock-ons from Nick Williams, Pienaar and Tom Court halting further progress on separate occasions.
Escande missed a penalty on 15 minutes before the game descended into a kick back and forward affair with neither team making any inroads.
Andrew Trimble, who became Ulster’s most capped player in Europe when he ran out for his 58th consecutive start in the Heineken Cup, then gathered a high ball launched by Paddy Jackson and it stung Ulster into action.
Two tries in three minutes had Ulster sitting pretty.
On 24 minutes a lovely crossfield kick by Jackson was taken by Robbie Diack and he drove through winger Lucas Dupont to score in the corner, although it had to be confirmed by the TMO.
Pienaar added the extras to the score and then, three minutes later after some good work from Chris Henry, he put a kick over the Montpellier defence.
Dupont looked to have it covered but the ball slipped through his body as he went to ground, Craig Gilroy kicked if off the despairing winger’s back and Pienaar gathered the lose ball and went in for the try – again adding the conversion for a 14-3 advantage.
The French caught Ulster napping at a ruck when hooker Charles Geli broke and made big yards before offloading to lock, Robins Tchale Watchou who crossed in the corner and Escande converted to keep the visitors right in it.
Pienaar and Escande exchanged two penalties apiece either side of the interval to leave a four point margin in it after 50 minutes.
The third try did come however and almost in bizarre fashion. Pienaar’s hanging box kick to the corner was chased by tighthead prop, John Afoa, although Payne overtook him, slapped the ball back and the New Zealand raced in for a superb try. Pienaar converted and Ulster had a 27-16 lead.
It took a huge rearguard effort from the hosts as the French piled on the pressure coming to within five metres of the line, but after eight phases they were penalised for coming in from the side.
But Ulster lost two consecutive set pieces and the next scoring opportunity was presented to Escande, but he missed his effort.
At the other end Pienaar looked to have got in for a try, but Montpellier replacement, Pierre Berard, got underneath the ball to deny him the grounding.
Then a neat backline move saw ball flashed out and replacement winger, Michael Allen, was denied by a foot going into touch on 73 minutes.
Ulster pressed right to the dying minute but were denied by strong French resistance – but at least their destiny remains in their own hands.
Ulster Rugby: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa, Johann Muller (c), Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Tries: Diack, Pienaar, Afoa
Pens: Pienaar (2)
Cons: Pienaar (3)
Replacements: Rob Herring (Best 70), Callum Black (Court 57), Declan Fitzpatrick (Afoa 60), Iain Henderson (Muller 61), Roger Wilson (Williams HT), Sean Doyle (Henry 70), Paul Marshall, Michael Allen (Gilroy 55)
Montpellier: Anthony Floch; Yohann Artru, Anthony Tuitavke, Thomas Combezou, Lucas Dupont; Enzo Selponi, Eric Escande; Na’ama Leleimalefaga, Charles Geli, Maximiliano Bustos, Mickael Demarco, Robins Tchale Watchou, Kelian Galletier, Alexandre Bias, Johnnie Beattie (c)
Replacements: Mickael Ivaldi (Watchou 78), Mikheil Nariashvili (Leleimalefaga 61) Paea Fa’anunu (Bustos 61), Yvan Watremez, Fred Quercy (Galletier 4), Benoit Paillaugue (Selponi 38), Pierre Berard (Floch 58), Timoci Nagusa (Artru HT)
Pens: Escande (3)
News Letter and Heineken man of the match: Pienaar
Referee: Wayne Barnes (Eng)