As the encounter kicked off, there was little to choose between the two teams in Pool 4, both having registered a win against Aironi and succumbed to French outfit Biarritz Olympique. Bath, however, enjoyed a slight advantage in the standings, one point ahead thanks to a bonus point picked up in Italy.
With bright sunshine in their eyes, Ulster started the game camped deep in their own half and were behind to an Olly Barkley penalty from directly in front of the posts after two minutes. The Ulster response was lively, but a misplaced pass in midfield soon gifted possession back to the visitors. A Stephen Ferris raid that got the flanker to within inches of the line on 6 minutes promised much, but seconds later another highly speculative pass was intercepted by Bath full-back Jack Cuthbert, who ran the length of the field to ground beneath the posts. Barkley's conversion compounded the misery at Ulster 0 Bath 10.
Ian Humphreys scraped back three points with a 12th-minute penalty, and with Bath penalised straight from the restart for taking out a player in the air, Ulster set about working to impose some order in the middle of the park. When the Englishmen infringed again on 18 minutes, Humphreys pulled a second kick wide from distance, but alert handling amongst the backs soon won possession back. The final ball just woud not come, though, and another lapse on 22 minutes allowed Lewis Moody to steal possession and race down the left wing unopposed for the second try. Barkley's conversion struck the upright, but at Ulster 3 Bath 15, the scoreline already made ominous reading.
With Bath reduced to 14 after prop Michael Flatman had been yellow-carded for a dangerously high tackle, Pienaar kicked into the left corner, but after the line-out and several minutes of scrummaging, play again broke down and Bath were able to clear. Then, on 35 minutes, a distribution error this time from the Englishmen gave Pedrie Wannenburg the chance to stretch his legs, and the big Springbok pounded his way to the line to score his first competitive try in white, and redress the balance to an extent. Humphreys' conversion raised the score to Ulster 10 Bath 15.
Then, with the belligerent Bath soon punished for deliberately collapsing a scrum, Humphreys kicked a sublime penalty from half-way to put his team within two points at the break.
Half-Time Score Ulster 13 Bath 15
The second half opened with Barkley increasing his tally further after Ulster had collapsed a scrum, but the encounter's true turning point came on 49 minutes after Paddy Wallace had charged down a Bath clearance kick. The impressive Wannenburg, clearly relishing the physicality of the encounter, capitalised on some indecision in the resulting lineout to steal and, after some precise passing and patient build-up play from Ulster, the visitors infringed once again and Humphreys slotted home the penalty on 53 minutes, making it Ulster 16 Bath 18.
Ulster hearts were in mouths two minutes later when Andrew Trimble prevented a sure-fire Bath try with a last-ditch interception yards from the try-line and, as the men in white pushed upfield, superb ball-carrying from Ferris launched them deep into Bath territory on the hour mark. With the Englishmen under severe pressure and on the back foot, the inevitable infringement eventually came and Humphreys kicked Ulster into the lead for the first time in the encounter at 19 - 18.
An exquisite spinning clearance kick from the out-half then put Bath straight back under pressure deep in their own half, and once Ulster had stolen again from the line-out it, was only a matter of time before more points were registered. Bath valiantly withstood strong Ulster advances but eventually infringed again directly in front of the posts, leaving Humphreys with an easy task to make the score Ulster 22 Bath 18 on 65 minutes.
A five-minute onslaught ensued from the visitors, high on pressure but low on penetration, and committed tackling within the Ulster ranks ensured the defence would not be breached again. The Ulstermen eventually cleared, but any respite was short-lived as Bath came right back at them, camping within the '22'. Brian McLaughlin's men showed some more first-class resilience, and wasted no time in kicking into touch as soon as the 80 minutes had elapsed.
With Aironi pulling off a shock victory over Biarritz in today's other tie, Pool Four is now wide open, and next Saturday's return fixture in the West Country will prove to be a real crunch tie.
Full-Time Score Ulster 22 Bath 18
(15 - 9) A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli ; I Humphreys, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, N Brady, BJ Botha, J Muller (c), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg
Replacements (16 - 23) A Kyriacou, P McAllister, B Young, T Barker, W Faloon, P Marshall, I Whitten, D McIlwaine
(15 - 9) J Cuthbert; M Carraro, M Banahan, O Barkey, T Biggs; S Vesty, M Claasens (c)
(1 - 8) D Flatman, L Mears, D Wilson, S Hooper, D Grewcock, A Beattie, L Moody, S Taylor
Replacements (16 - 23) P Dixon, D Barnes, D Bell, N Fernandez-Lobbe, G Mercer, B Skirving, M McMillan, N Abendanon
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Bath Rugby Score Card|