Ulster produced an outstanding performance as they thrashed Oyonnax 56-3 to keep their Champions Cup hopes alive.
The French club was clearly fatigued from recent exertions in the Top 14 and failed to keep pace with a rampant and clinical Ulster side. Oyonnax only had a Rory Clegg penalty to show for their efforts.
The Irishmen had the bonus point wrapped up just before half-time through tries from captain Rob Herring, Darren Cave, Rory Scholes and Sean Reidy.
As impressive as that was, the Irish province know that points difference could prove crucial in their quest for one of the best placed runners up berths, and the Ravenhill men came out of the blocks strongly in the second half with an equally thunderous showing.
The French club were absolutely blitzed in the second period with further tries from Craig Gilroy, Robbie Diack and the extremely impressive Jared Payne.
Ian Humphreys also made a stunning cameo, contributing a try and three conversions before his afternoon was curtailed prematurely by injury. Ireland fly-half Paddy Jackson was also on form, landing five conversions of his own.
This performance puts Ulster on a healthy 18 points, while the Ravenhill men have amassed a points’ difference of plus 60. Whether it’s enough remains to be seen.
The Ulster faithful will have to wait on the outcomes of other games and will take a particular interest in the Scarlets v Northampton and Exeter v Ospreys encounters. Ulster may not emerge from this pool, but after this performance they will feel they couldn’t have done much more.
Ulster made an ideal start. Oyannax were penalised for a high tackle on Cave yards from their own line. With the visitors’ defence napping, Paul Marshall took a quick tap and was held up short. From there, hooker Herring picked up and scored. Marius Mitrea referred upstairs, but the TMO had no hesitation in awarding the try.
Oyonnax rallied well in the next few minutes, their big runners continually getting over the gain line. The Irishmen struggled to get their hands on the ball and Clegg reduced the gap on 10 minutes with a well-taken penalty.
But it was Ulster that scored next on 18 minutes. Nick Williams made a lung-bursting carry in midfield, taking out several Oyonnax defenders in the process. Payne took it on after picking a beautiful running line before unloading to the supporting Cave to touch down. Jackson converted to give his side a 14-3 cushion.
To their credit, Oyonnax kept coming and Clegg had another chance to reduce Ulster’s lead on 23 minutes but his connection was poor and the kick fell short.
Ulster capitalised on his profligacy three minutes later. A nice inter-change between Cave and Luke Marshall found space in the visiting 22, before the softest of hands put Scholes (only just on the field as a blood replacement for Andrew Trimble) under the posts. Jackson converted to make it 21-3.
The hosts sensed blood and were in a whisker of the bonus point they needed. And it duly came on the cusp of half-time.
Jackson kicked a penalty to the corner and the men in white won the ensuing lineout. Paul Marshall tapped but couldn’t get over the whitewash. Openside Reidy however was there in support and barged over for the fourth try. Jackson converted to end a decent, if flawed half from the home side.
Normal service was resumed at the start of the second half, and Ulster were bolstered when Gilroy got over on 47 minutes to stretch the lead further.
It got better for the hosts on 55 minutes when Diack touched down for another score. The TMO took an age to award it, but the grounding was okay and replacement Humphreys converted to give Ulster a 42-3 lead.
The Top 14 side were starting to look extremely jaded and Humphreys easily strolled through on 59 minutes for another try that he converted himself.
The loose nature of the game was made for Ulster’s backs, who were thriving in all acres of space, and Payne got over for another score on 62 minutes, having collected a pass from the supporting Cave. Humphreys again converted.
The hosts couldn’t add to the tally, but the job was done. All they can do now is wait.
Tries: Herring, Cave, Scholes, Reidy, Gilroy, Diack, Humphreys, Payne
Cons: Jackson 5, Humphreys 3
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Alan O'Connor, 3 Ricky Lutton, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Kyle McCall
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Callum Black, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Clive Ross, 20 Roger Wilson, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Rory Scholes
Oyonnax: 15 Florian Denos, 14 Daniel Ikpefan, 13 Guillaume Bousses, 12 Alaska Taufa, 11 Dug Codjo, 10 Rory Clegg, 9 Julien Blanc, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Pierrick Gunther, 6 Valentin Ursache, 5 Geoffrey Fabbri, 4 Leon Power, 3 Giorgi Vepkhvadze, 2 Thomas Bordes, 1 Soane Tonga'uiha
Replacements: 16 Jeremie Maurouard, 17 Laurent Delboulbès, 18 Horace Pungea , 19 Fabrice Metz, 20 Maurie Fa'asavalu, 21 Fabien Cibray, 22 Regis Lespinas, 23 Eamonn Sheridan
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant Referees: Matteo Liperini (Italy), Simone Boaretto (Italy)
TMO: Stefano Pennè (Italy)