RUAN PIENAAR UNDERLINED his importance to Ulster with a hugely classy 35-minute performance in the second half of their 22-16 win against the Leicester Tigers.
Paul Marshall had shown his sniping threat with a clean line-break in the first half but it was the introduction of Pienaar that truly saw Ulster into the ascendancy. His composure and intelligence prompted the northern province’s forwards onto the front foot and helped Ulster into a nine-point lead with just 10 minutes left.
While a 76th-minute strike from Leicester’s Owen Williams secured a losing bonus point for the visitors, Pienaar’s impact was the perfect celebration of the new three-year deal he penned with Ulster during the week. His calming effect was infectious as Ulster grew in the second half, having suffered at the hands of the Tigers pack in the first period.
Pienaar was not the only substitute to make a telling difference for the home side, with Iain Henderson underlining his exceptional potential with an enthusiastic, hungry display. The 21-year-old was everywhere in his 25 minutes on the Ravenhill turf, and he is the type of athlete rarely produced on these shores.
Elsewhere, Paddy Jackson have an assured 80 minutes at out-half, particularly in the first half when his kicking from hand was accurate and put the Tigers under pressure on several occasions. Roger Wilson got through a mountain of work from the back row, while Jared Payne kicked superbly to keep Leicester pinned back.
Roger Wilson was named man of the match for an industrious performance. ©INPHO/Presseye/Brian Little.
Amidst all those positives was the sense that there was more in this game for Ulster. Mark Anscombe’s men have a tendency to panic when they get into the ‘red zone’ and line breaks were often followed up by butchering of try-scoring chances in both halves. Ulster will be aware of a need to develop a ruthless streak as the competition progresses.
The Tigers’ scrum was dominant for the majority of the game, but Tom Court and Declan Fitzpatrick did well to recover and ended up on top of the set piece as the game finished. Defensively, the Ulstermen grew into the game after a shaky opening patch where holes opened up for Toby Flood and Nike Goneva.
Richard Cockerill will be relived his side managed to secure the losing bonus point, but on the balance of play they deserved it. They head home to prepare for a must-win clash with Treviso at Welford Road next weekend, while Ulster now focus on a trip to Montpellier in just over a week. The Italians and French clash tomorrow afternoon at the Stadio di Monigo, after which Pool 5 will start to take shape.
Meanwhile, Connacht were unlucky to lose 23-17 at home to Saracens tonight, very nearly grabbing the four points as they assaulted the Sarries tryline in the closing minutes. Pat Lam will be gutted, but should take encouragement from his side’s ability to compete against the English heavyweights.
In the other Heineken Cup game this evening, Toulouse scored six tries on the way to a 38-5 win at home to Zebre, with Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard both notching braces. It’s a strong start to Pool 3 for the former European giants, but tougher tests lie ahead.
And so the Heineken Cup is back. After all the mind-numbing bickering over the future of European club rugby, it was enjoyable to sit back and watch the magic on the pitch. Ravenhill and the Sportsground both served up memorable encounters, and hopefully tonight was just a taste of what is to come.