Stade Francais seized the initiative in Heineken Cup Pool 4 with a 29-16 victory over a determined Ulster side at Stade Jean Bouin on Sunday.
The contest had been scheduled to take place in Brussels on Saturday but snow forced the postponement and the fixture was switched to Stade’s Paris home.
The hosts thrived on home turf as Dimitri Szarzewski and Benjamin Kayser rounded off forward efforts with tries and France out-half Lionel Beauxis was unerringly accurate with the boot. He kicked 19 points – seven from seven attempts at goal – to put Stade clear of Ulster and Edinburgh at the top of the standings.
Ian Humphreys kicked 11 points and centre Andrew Trimble scored a terrific second half solo try but Ulster, despite a rallying final quarter, fell to a second Heineken Cup loss of the season.
There was the prospect of bad blood between the sides following last weekend’s 23-13 win for Ulster at Ravenhill – a result that was overshadowed by two instances of eye gouging.
France scrum half Julien Dupuy was on Friday banned for six months for his attack on Stephen Ferris, while replacement prop David Attoub, who was also cited for eye gouging the Ireland flanker, must wait to learn his fate after his case was adjourned pending further evidence.
Ulster had BJ Botha back in the front row, Timoci Nagusa returned on the right wing and captain Paddy Wallace made his first appearance since injurying his ankle in Ireland’s recent win over South Africa.
Young flanker Willie Faloon also started in the back row, getting the nod over the recently-rehabilitated David Pollock.
Brian McLaughlin’s men took first blood when Humphreys kicked a penalty after a high tackle from Pascal Pape but Beauxis soon replied with three points of his own as Stade punished the visitors’ indiscipline.
Stade went in front for the first time when a fine driving maul effort was finished off by hooker Szarzewski. Beauxis converted. Ulster had the opportunity to cut the deficit soon after but Humphreys missed the penalty attempt.
The Ireland ‘A’ international made amends soon after but Stade quickly responded to further Ulster indiscipline as the impressive Beauxis kicked two more penalties to open up a 10-point lead.
Another infringement at the breakdown allowed Beauxis to kick his fourth penalty but Humphreys narrowed the deficit once more as a territorially dominant Stade took a 19-9 half-time advantage.
Indeed, Ulster enjoyed one of their best spells coming up to the interval. Humphreys watched a drop goal attempt agonisingly bounce back off an upright.
Stade scrambled the ball away, but with the French outfit penalised at the resulting lineout, Ulster closed the gap with a third penalty from Humphreys.
Beauxis kicked his fifth penalty to extend the advantage to 13 points as Ulster slipped further behind, albeit after Stade had secured a fortunate turnover. The France number 10 then spurned three further points by kicking to the corner and Stade duly claimed a second try.
It was a straightforward success for the powerful Paris side’s pack as Kayser, a replacement for Szarzewski, touched down to cap the forward drive. Beauxis tagged on the extras.
But Ulster’s fading hopes were boosted when Trimble burst onto Humphreys’ pass and powered around Ollie Phillips for a terrific individual try. Humphreys converted to cut the gap to 13 points with 11 minutes remaining.
But Ulster, who are now four points off the pace in Pool 4, could not forge a fightback as Stade held on. With their chances of reaching the quarter-final stage dented by this result, McLaughlin’s charges have two must win games to come next month – at home to Edinburgh and away to Bath.