Ian Humphreys landed a last-gasp long range penalty to keep alive Ulster’s hopes of making the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup as they defeated Biarritz Olympique 9-6 at Ravenhill.
Ian Humphreys’ late match clincher from just inside his own half ensures that the Pool 4 winners will be decided in next weekend’s final round of games.
Biarritz’s losing bonus point could yet prove crucial to who tops the pool and as things stand, the French outfit look more likely to qualify should they beat Bath at Parc des Sports Aguilera.
But if resilient Ulster win at Aironi they could be on target to get through as one of the two best runners-up in the competition.
It was not a game for a purists in rain-soaked Belfast, but Ulstershowed great tenacity as they fought back from trailing 6-0 at half-time. Two penalties from Humphreys – his first from all of 55 metres – cancelled out Biarritz’s advantage.
Then, at the death, he stepped up again and kept Ulster in contention to reach the quarter-final stage for the first time since they were crowned champions in 1999.
Even with the elements behind them in the first half, this highly-regarded Biarritz side barely got out of their half such was the intensity of Ulster’s effort in that opening period.
They came out and immediately took the game to the last season’s beaten finalists with some strong carrying from Stephen Ferris and Pedrie Wannenburg which got them into a position for an early shot at goal when Magnus Lund was offside at a ruck.
However, Humphreys’ opening effort went high and was blown out by the gusting wind. Ulster continued to play pretty much all the rugby in Biarritz territory, assisted by some poor kicking out of hand from Damien Traille and Dimitri Yachvili.
Biarritz’s cause seemed further undermined when lock Erik Lund was sent to the bin for interfering with Ruan Pienaar when the scrum half tried to take a quick penalty.
But the visitors survived the 10 minutes without Lund and actually opened the scoring when Yachvili nailed a penalty on 19 minutes after BJ Botha infringed at the scrum.
Ulster responded with a great piece of play off a lineout when a Paddy Wallace inside pass released Simon Danielli. The Scotland international’s long pass found Adam D’Arcy on the right wing and it looked as if the Ulster full-back was going to make the corner.
However, a great covering tackle from Iain Balshaw managed to push D’Arcy’s foot into touch and a terrific chance for the home side was lost just prior to Lund’s return.
Then on the half hour, with the weather deteriorating, Ulster had another opportunity to score which involved D’Arcy again.
This time a cross-field kick from Wallace was superbly kept in by Dan Tuohy who flicked the ball back into space to D’Arcy and the full-back’s knee pushed the ball towards the try line in the right corner.
But D’Arcy’s attempt to get the touchdown saw a combination of Balshaw and a knock on from the Australian himself leave the Biarritz line intact.
Jean-Michel Gonzalez’s men continued to pick off the scores though and Yachvili kicked his second penalty just before the break after Ulster had fouled up their own lineout.
Still, there were more encouraging signs for Ulster from the onset of the second half as firstly Biarritz, now without their captain Imanol Harinordoquy, made a mess of receiving the kick-off.
Then, nine minutes in, Humphreys nailed a wind-assisted penalty from 55 metres to finally get Ulster on the scoreboard. Ferris competed tigerishly at the preceding ruck to win the penalty.
The Ulster forwards were camped on the Biarritz line for a short period, but their efforts went unrewarded as a knock on spoilt a great position.
Humphreys then tied the scores with a more straightforward effort after Magnus Lund was penalised at a ruck, on the hour mark.
However, errors then began to creep into Ulster’s game as Pienaar kicked dead from his own 22 – luckily for the him Traille’s subsequent drop goal attempt was woefully wide.
Soon after, a push from Wannenburg on Yachvili gave Biarritz possession which resulted in a 17-phase attack that brought the Frenchmen close to Ulster’s posts.
Magnus Lund knocked on as he tried to drive over, but Biarritz kept the stranglehold on the game, until Samiu Vahafolau was penalised at a ruck for holding on to the ball.
Up stepped Humphreys from just inside his half and he put it straight through the posts to send Ravenhill into raptures. Choruses of ‘Stand up for the Ulstermen’ rung out at the end.
Speaking after what was a dramatic and tense climax, Ulster head coach Brian McLaughlin said: “Our defence on our line halfway through the second half was unbelievable. We’ve talked long and hard about the trust we have in each other and the trust in our system.
“Our defence was outstanding and we forced the error. We took their purple patch and we matched it. We got the turnover and got the penalty we needed and Ian put it over, which was fantastic.”
He added: “I think the way we played into the wind (in the first half) was excellent. It was just unfortunate that a couple of times we spilled in the wrong areas.
“But it was exceptionally tough out there with the wind and rain. It’s not easy but we should have taken one of them (the two chances that fell to Adam D’Arcy).”