OPINION: Ulster must back up Bath victory when Clermont visit Kingspan
Jacob Stockdale’s try saving intervention in added time at The Rec on Saturday afternoon ensured Ulster were able to celebrate a winning start to their European campaign at Bath.
The mood would have been so different had he not tracked back to intercept the try making pass from Zach Mercer to Semesa Rokoduguni in the final play of a pulsating Champions Cup, Pool Three clash.
Two minutes earlier, Marcelle Coetzee had forced a turnover penalty, John Cooney found touch and with the clock going red he kicked the ball dead and arms were raised as the Irish Province celebrated a fifth consecutive win, 17-16, over the English Premiership side.
Both clubs’ coaching staff had already left the stands, we in the Press box were finalising our opening paragraphs, but there was a twist still to come.
Italian referee Marius Mitrea deemed the line-out was crooked, the scrum was set and Bath had one more chance, from inside their own half, to snatch a win.
They moved the ball left, right, left and back to the right, a tip pass out to Mercer and it looked as though Rokoduguni would go through to score in the corner.
International winger, Stockdale, who was relatively quiet in the preceding 80 minutes, did remarkably well to track back and get in to catch the ball just as it was being received by Rokoduguni.
It was one of those moments of drama that makes Champions Cup rugby what it is.
Stockdale had emerged an unlikely hero from a game in which he had made little impact compared to his exploits in previous seasons.
Joint equal try scorer in Europe last year, the former Wallace High pupil scored tries for fun in both the white and green jersey.
His form has been questioned of late. He never really made an impression with Ireland at the World Cup and last week in Munster his performance had many wondering if, given Ulster’s healthy full roster at present, he would make the starting XV against Bath.
There was one piece of individual brilliance with an offload in the second half, but he never really got enough ball to show his full set of talents at The Rec.
But that timely intervention at the end which meant Ulster left with a win and not a defeat could just be the one thing that will kick-start his season.
Stockdale’s rise in the international ranks was quick and every player will have a dip in performance at some stage. The young star just needs to find his mojo again. However, if Ulster are to make the knockout stages again in this season’s European odyssey, that piece of Stockdale brilliance at The Rec, will be recalled.
Winning away is critical to further progress in the Heineken Cup, provided of course you take care of business at home. The win at Bath is precious but there is no time to reflect.
French side Clermont Auvergne come to Belfast this Friday night. They were ruthless in their 53-21 demolition of Harlequins in France on Saturday evening and Ulster will have noted the dangers and the need to improve some of their facets if they are to take a victory which would leave them in pole position in the group going into the back-to-back games against Harlequins next month.
Ulster’s rearguard against Bath was immense. The return of Marcelle Coetzee and captain Iain Henderson added to a pack which has become a formidable force once again The set piece was solid against Munster and it was better again at The Rec.
Jarred Payne will have been delighted to see Ulster score of two turnovers - John Cooney in the first half and then Rob Lyttle’s chase of Will Addison’s kick ahead in the second.
However, Ulster need to have more of the ball and they need to hold on to it when they do. There were few lengthy phases of possession against Bath.
As head coach, Dan McFarland, remarked after the win it is something which is not sustainable and they could be tortured by Clermont if it does not improve.
Addison was another who returned to the Ulster side after injury and for an hour he injected creativity in attack and if just one or two of his off-loads had found their target, Ulster would probably have come away with a more comfortable win.
But he slipped off the pace towards the end, his missed tackle allowed Bath in for their try which kept things more anxious than they needed to be for the visitors. His ability to change the line of attack is crucial.
Cooney picked up the ‘man of the match’ award in Bath, but the ever presence of Coetzee cannot be underestimated.
The backrow made 17 carries and 16 tackles in another powerful display from the South African. Coetzee and Henderson will be huge when Clermont come to Kingspan on Friday night.
Ulster’s home record against Clermont is good, having won on the previous two occasions the clubs met. The first was in 2011-12, the season Ulster lost in the eventual final to Leinster, with a 16-11 success. In 2016-17 Ulster took the honours 39-32 in a thrilling game in Belfast.
Expect another close one this weekend, but Ulster must back up an away win in Europe with a home success if they are to put down a serious marker as contenders this season.