Personnel changes to the first XV - two tactical, two enforced - saw Craig Gilroy start in the unfamiliar position of full-back in place of the unavailable Jared Payne, a switch which in turn brought in Michael Allen on the wing for his first European start. Meanwhile, Pienaar moved to out-half in lieu of Paddy Jackson, paving the way for Paul Marshall to start at scrum-half. Up front, Neil McComb was preferred to Iain Henderson at lock, while Roger Wilson donned the Number Eight shirt in the absence of the injured Nick Williams.
Ulster enjoyed better possession and territory in the first half, as well as an indisputable mastery of the scrum, but a combination of poor decision-making and imperfect organisation at the line-out nullified any advantage their superiority might have brought.
The visitors started the match strongly, with Pienaar electing to kick two early penalties to touch rather than going for the posts, but Castres absorbed the pressure well, and indeed got on the scoresheet first, courtesy off a right-flank breakaway try grounded by Rémi Lamérat on nine minutes. Ulster were spared a full compliment of points against, however, as Rory Kockott's conversion veered wide in the swerving wind.
Pienaar retrieved three points immediately with a firmly-struck penalty from 41 metres, only for Kockott to re-establish the five-point lead in the 18th minute with a close-range effort after Paddy Wallace had been pulled up for a high tackle on former team-mate Pedrie Wannenburg. Then a strong pick-and-drive from the Ulster forwards, illegally impaired by the defending Castrais, won the visitors a five-minute scrum, which, after three collapses from the French front row, evaporated on the fourth attempt with early engagement from the Ulster front three.
Further injury woe came Ulster's way just before the half-hour mark, as Wilson limped off to be replaced by Henderson, and with the line-out misfiring on several occasions as the half progressed, the prospect of a home quarter final began to look somewhat distant. However, a lucky break which saw the Castres forwards accidentally crossing awarded Pienaar a very kickable penalty in front of the posts, which the Springbok dispatched to bring Ulster to within two points with five minutes of the half remaining.
Ulster played out the half in Castres territory, and could even have gone off at the break a point to the good, as Antoine Peikrishvili was penalised just before the whistle for collapsing another scrum. Pienaar's kick from distance bent too far to the right, though, and brought a frustrating first half for the Ulstermen to an end.
Half-Time Score Castres 8 Ulster 6
Castres came out of the blocks in the second half much quicker, their experienced wing Marcel Garvey threatening down the left before the Ulster triumvirate of Gilroy, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble halted him metres from the line. After an audacious 50-metre penalty attempt from Kockott on 50 minutes dropped just left of the posts, the Frenchmen enjoyed a good 10-minute period of sustained pressure, ending with a similarly speculative drop-goal attempt from Rémi Tales on the hour.
Then the tide turned somewhat, Gilroy eventually getting some ground to tear up as he led his side into the Castres half, and with Jackson now on in place of Marshall, and Pienaar back to his favoured position of scrum-half, Ulster's shape began to look better. Pienaar kicked his side into the lead courtesy of a central penalty on 65 minutes, and as the Castres defence began to show signs of faltering, Jackson only just failed to pick out Trimble for a sure-fire try as he broke through with 10 minutes remaining, Tales intercepting at the critical moment.
On 75 minutes, a superbly-angled Pienaar penalty dropped just short of the posts, but with the minutes ticking down, Anscombe's men were not unduly concerned, as they went about slowing play down in the middle of the park. Henry in particular was outstanding, contesting every ball and ensuring his colleagues remained focused until referee Nigel Owens eventually brought the contest to a close.
A four-try bonus point would have ensured a home quarter final for Ulster regardless of results in any of the other pools, but in truth the team rarely looked likely to breach the Castres defence once, never mind four times. Their performance was consummately professional, however, particularly given the absence of several key figures, and with five victories from six European ties this season, the team can look forward to the knock-out stages with confidence - and still a strong chance of home advantage.
Full-Time Score Castres Olympique 8 Ulster 9
(15 - 9) P Bernard; M Evans, S Bai, R Lamerat, M Garvey; R Tales, R Kockott
(1 - 8) Y Forestier, M-A Rallier, A Peikrishvili, M Rolland (c), C Samson, M Babillot, P Faasalele, P Wannenburg
Replacements (16 - 23) B Mach, S Taumoepeau, M Lazar, I Tekori, T LAcrampe, J Bornman, P Bonnefond, M Andreu
(15 - 9) C Gilroy; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, M Allen; R Pienaar, P Marshall
(1 - 8) T Court, R Best, J Afoa, L Stevenson, N McComb, R Diack, C Henry (c), R Wilson
Replacements (16 - 23) R Herring, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, I Henderson, M McComish, M Heaney, P Jackson, C Cochrane
|Castres Olympique Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|