Ulster will play Biarritz at home and Aironi away to complete Pool Four of this season's Heineken Cup, and after this obdurate win the red-hand gang have a decent shot at winning it – the pool, that is, not necessarily the competition.
Bath are a long way off winning anything. They had already lost to Biarritz at home and they are out of contention now. They have also lost to Gloucester, Saracens and Wasps here in the Premiership. The Rec should be renamed with a "w" and a "k" at either end.
The head coach, Steve Meehan, is thought to have ceded team-picking duties to Sir Ian McGeechan, who arrived as performance directorlast summer. Whoever is in charge, there are problems fore and aft. A pack of big names with a high average age was bullied in a second half in which Ulster turned round a 14-13 interval deficit. The backs' passing was sometimes panicky and the tendency of Shontayne Hape to hang on in possession kicked against the pricks of a supposed devotion to expansion. The players mirror their stadium, which is subject to wearily familiar talk of redevelopmentwithout it ever happening.
This was the fourth time these teams had met in two seasons and Ulster have won the lot. They took a detour, travelling via Dublin on Friday, but that, like the absence of the injured Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris,was a minor impediment. The back row of Pedrie Wannenburg, Robbie Diack and Willie Faloon – two South Africans and an Ulsterman – swarmed around the Bath half-backs. At scrum-half Ruan Pienaar ran and passed and controlled the game, in contrast to his old Springbok mate Butch James, who made his return in the BathNo 10 jersey after three months out with a damaged shoulder.
James's game-management has been sufficient in the past to steer Bath to victories but perhaps his comeback came a little early here. Though he announced his presence with a long pass in the move which, with a battering charge by Jack Cuthbert, led to a try by Matt Carraro after 35 seconds, it was not long before he was lucky to get away with a mis-timed tackle on his opposite number, Ian Humphreys. In the second half James's luck ran out; he appeared more sinned against than sinning when he was shown a yellow card after a scuffle with Dan Tuohy.
While James was off, Ulster took the lead. Humphreys converted for 20-14 after Nevin Spence dashed to the left corner in the 56th minute to round off an attack of at least a dozen phases. To reach that happy position, Ulster had fallen behind 8-0 to Carraro's try and an Olly Barkley penalty, then hit back with Diack taking advantage of a horrendous dog-leg in Bath's midfield to make a try for Adam D'Arcy that Humphreys converted at the start of a sequence of six kicks and no misses for the fly-half, whose brother David captained Ulster to European glory in 1999. Barkley and Humphreys then exchanged two penalties apiece.
"We gave them 10 points in the first half when we should have held our line and cleared our lines," said Meehan. "Monday to Friday training is great, but as John Eales [the former Australia captain] used to say, you need to remember how to win on a Saturday. If it comes by 3-0 next week, I won't care."
It was honest from Meehan, but indicative of the dire state Bath, the 1998 European champions, are in. They rallied last season to finish well and Meehan said he hopes for a repeat. That six-point Ulster lead proved beyond them, though. Humphreys kicked a penalty from his own half after 59 minutes; then Barkley missed one and kicked one for Bath and Matt Banahan steamrollered the visitors' full-back for a try on 68 minutes. That was much more like the role the fans in Jane Austen country had for Ulster'sMr D'Arcy. But despite a yellow card to Spence for killing the ball Ulster held on, and a penalty conceded by Lewis Moody for killing the ball gave Humphreys the final points.
Bath J Cuthbert (N Abendanon, 57); M Carraro, O Barkley, S Hape, M Banahan; B James, M Claassens (capt); D Flatman (D Barnes, 51), L Mears, D Wilson, S Hooper, D Grewcock (I Ferndandez Lobbe, 57), A Beattie (B Skirving, 57), S Taylor, L Moody.
Ulster A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court (P McAllister, 70), N Brady, BJ Botha, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy (T Barker, 57), P Wannenburg, R Diack (C Henry, 57), W Faloon.
Referee P Gaüzère (France).
Tries: Carraro, Banahan. Pens: Barkley 4
Tries: D'Arcy, Spence. Cons: Humphreys 2. Pens: Humphreys 4