With Leicester fancied to register a five-pointer in Treviso this afternoon, Mark Anscombe’s side must go into the lions’ den and come out unscathed.
Not an easy task by any means, particularly going on last night’s feeble effort against Montpellier’s second string outfit.
In the early days of the Heineken Cup, the result of this game would have been one of those ‘Ravenhill’ nights when a French team were given a bit of a dusting. Not now though. The 14,000 who packed the stadium expect more than just a victory, the fans now want to win with style and last night’s performance was certainly not that.
Tries by Robbie Diack, John Afoa and man-of-the-match Ruan Pienaar, who also kicked 12 points, saw Ulster home, but a bonus point never looked like coming.
Early Ulster pressure didn’t bring its rewards when Pienaar fluffed a 40m effort in the fourth minute, and immediately Montpellier went upfield and scored a penalty of their own through scrum-half Eric Escande after Nick Williams was penalised for not rolling away.
Ulster were making too many errors and ill discipline again allowed Escande a shot at the sticks, though this time his kick dropped under the cross bar.
If the Frenchmen were not supposed to be fussy about putting in the effort, they had a funny way of showing it. Even though they had only four of the starting side that went down to Ulster earlier in the season, they were beginning to bully the home side.
However, a great take of a Garryowen by Andrew Trimble, making his 58th consecutive European Cup appearance, sparked Ulster into action. From a quick ruck and with the Montpellier defence crowding midfield, Paddy Jackson put in a judicious cross-field kick to flanker Diack, whose strength held off the challenge Lucas Dupont to crash over in the corner. Pienaar banged over the touchline conversion and three minutes later was involved in the making and scoring of his side’s second try.
Again a rush defence by the French saw them back-peddling when the Springbok put in an excellent grubber kick, which the unfortunate Dupont was unable to gather, and Pienaar was up quickly to gather and dive over.
But that Ulster spurt stalled in the 31st minute when, out of the blue, Montpellier scored. A lineout drive saw Ulster in reverse before hooker Charles Geli broke clear and, after a quick ruck, Escande fired out a long ball to lock Robins Watchou Tchale to drive over, with the scrum-half converting.
Although Pienaar rattled over an angled penalty in the 36th minute, Ulster were lacking rhythm in their play. Once again indiscipline allowed the visitors to cancel that kick out on the stroke of half-time through Escande.
While Pienaar got Ulster off on the right foot on the restart with another penalty, their play was still extremely fractured and scrappy.
When Escande drilled over another penalty in the 50th minute, Ravenhill went strangely quite. However, it erupted six minutes later with a superb opportunist try by Afoa.
Another neat kick through by Pienaar deep into the Montpellier half was chased by the spirited All Black. He was never going to out-sprint the cover defence, but Jared Payne got the initial touch of the ball and it was deflected to his fellow countryman, who sprinted to the line.
Pienaar converted, then was held up over the line in the 68th minute when he charged through on a mistake by replacement fly-half Benoit Paillaugue.
It was all Ulster in the final minutes as they searched for that elusive bonus point.
But with a bundle of errors it was just never going to happen.
Scorers for Ulster: Tries: Diack, Pienaar, Afoa. Cons: Pienaar 3. Pens: Pienaar 2.
Scorers for Montpellier: Tries: Tchale-Watchou. Cons: Escande. Pens: Escande 3.
ULSTER: J Payne, A Trimble; D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy (Allen, 56), P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court (Black, 59), R Best (Herring, 70), J Afoa (Fitzpatrick, 61), J Muller (capt) (Henderson, 62), D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry (Doyle, 70), N Williams (Wilson, 40).
MONTPELLIER: A Floch (Berard, 59); Y Artru (Nagusa, 40), A Tuitavake, T Combezou, L Dupont; E Selponi (Paillaugue, 38), E Escande; N Leleimalefaga (Nariashvili, 62), C Geli, M Bustos (Fa’anunu, 62), R Tchale Watchou (Evalde, 79), K Galletier (Quercy, 4), A Bias, J Beattie (capt).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU).