Leicester must hate this place like poison.
A decade ago, the East Midlanders made so little sense of rugby life in East Belfast that they drew a humiliating blank in going down 33-0 and lost their revered manager Dean Richards to the dole queue as a result. Last night, they travelled here knowing that a beating of similar proportions would leave their Heineken Cup campaign in tatters and put their current boss, Richard Cockerill, in a profoundly uncomfortable position. Similar? What happened turned out to be even worse.
If they finally found a way of registering a presence on the Ravenhill scoreboard and played some decent rugby in dousing the raging Ulster fires for a short spell during the first half, it was precious little consolation. This was an embarrassment for the two-time European champions – a painful, emotional wrecking ball of an embarrassment. Two current England players, Ben Youngs and Dan Cole, lost their rags completely, the latter ending up in the sin bin. By close of play, the Tigers looked every bit as clueless as the losing margin, a record for them in this tournament, suggested.
"There was no part of the game where we had parity," admitted Cockerill, who has never been one to duck and dive when things go wrong. "They're a good side, Ulster, and we didn't cope with them. They got away from us in the last quarter, but we were chasing things at that point and I could see it coming." He had no time for the straw-clutching argument that in mathematical terms, his side were still in the competition. "We're out," he asserted. "We're done."
Aware that if things went badly early on it could easily turn into a horrible night, Leicester were feeling sick to the pits of their stomachs almost immediately. After 11 minutes or so of frantic action, much of it driven by a passionately engaged Ulster loose combination in which the open-side flanker Chris Henry could not have been more industrious, Horacio Agulla fluffed a tackle on the experienced South African back Stefan Terblanche and gave the home side an opportunity to attack hard up the right and claim an opening try at the flag through Andrew Trimble. Ruan Pienaar, another South African earning his corn in Belfast, rubbed it in by converting magisterially from the touchline and when he followed up with a penalty from near halfway, Ulster were in double figures and intoxicated by the smell of blood.
The Midlanders needed an answer of the immediate variety and characteristically, they found one. Billy Twelvetrees, so full of potential as an attacking midfielder that his absence from the England squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship is a mystery that passeth all understanding, ran wide off a scrum on the Ulster 22 and proved strong enough to produce the ball from a fiercely contested ruck. From there, Youngs freed Geordan Murphy with an exquisite pass and the captain did the rest. Twelvetrees' conversion reduced the arrears to three points.
For a while, there was little to choose between the sides, although Henry, aided and abetted by Stephen Ferris' ultra-physical approach to the blind-side flanker's art and Pedrie Wannenburg's power game from No 8, continued to make a thorough nuisance of himself. But it was Pienaar who brought the brief spell of cut and thrust to an end by landing another brute of a long-range penalty after Martin Castrogiovanni failed to release the ball on the deck.
Thus encouraged, Ulster set about opening up some clear blue water for a second time and succeeded when Terblanche's intelligent kick downfield forced Agulla to retreat to his own line. Failing to escape Trimble's attentions, the Argentine was forced to concede a five-metre scrum from which Pienaar, running right, hit Trimble with a floated pass that was duly maximised by the international wing.
Pretty much there and then, Leicester knew the game was up. Pienaar, who had found his range to the inch, took Ulster out of sight with two more handsome kicks during a third quarter that was utter purgatory for the visitors. From purgatory, they quickly descended into rugby hell. Their Springbok tormentor landed a fifth penalty two minutes past the hour and then converted runaway tries from Craig Gilroy, who took full advantage of some terrific approach work from Wannenburg, and Paul Marshall, who tapped a penalty to himself and hared off into the distance without a finger being laid upon him.
"We should have played better, but we didn't," said Cockerill, succinctly. "We had five important players missing and with the salary cap working as it does in England, that makes life very difficult at this level. But that's absolutely not an excuse. We simply didn't deal with Ulster and we got what we deserved."
Scorers: Ulster: Tries Trimble 2, Gilroy, Marshall; Conversions Pienaar 3; Penalties: Pienaar 5. Leicester: Try Murphy; Conversion:Twelvetrees.
Ulster: S Terblanche (A D'Arcy, 76); A Trimble, D Cave (I Whitten, 57), P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys (P Marshall, 65), R Pienaar; T Court (C Black, 76), R Best (N Brady, 76) J Afoa (A Macklin, 76), J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris (L Steven, 73), C Henry, P Wannenburg (W Faloon, 70).
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); H Agulla, M Smith (J Staunton, 59), A Allen, A Tuilagi; W Twelvetrees, B Youngs (S Harrison, 77); M Ayerza, R Hawkins (G Chuter, 65), M Castrogiovanni (D Cole, 55, Castrogiovanni, 65), S Mafi (E Slater, 56), G Parling, T Croft, J Salvi (B Woods, 73), T Waldrom.
Referee: R Poite (France).
Beck's double keeps Ospreys dream alive
The Ospreys maintained their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup with a six-try romp against Treviso at the Liberty Stadium last night, winning 44-17.
The hosts had secured the bonus point after just six minutes of the second half as a penalty try added to Ashley Beck's first-half double and Tommy Bowe's interception score, with Kahn Fotuali'i and a second penalty try completing the scoring as fly-half Dan Biggar kicked 12 points.
Sean Holley, the Ospreys head coach, backed Beck to earn a place in the Wales squad. "It is someone else's decision, but Ashley is doing all he can to apply pressure," Holley said. "If you look at the 12s around the country he has to be up there, he showed a lot of class tonight."
In last night's other game, Edinburgh kept their qualification ambitions on track with a last-gasp 27-24 win over Racing Metro in Paris, Phil Godman's drop goal with the last move of the game sealing victory.
"We got lucky at the end, we held our composure and fell over the line with Phil's drop goal," said Michael Bradley, the Edinburgh coach, whose side entertain London Irish a week on Sunday knowing that a win will take them through.