Ulster beat Harlequins 21-10 at a wind and rain-battered Ravenhill in the Heineken Cup on Saturday, keeping the hopes of Stade FranÃ§ais alive in Pool Four if they can win in Llanelli on Sunday.
The game hinged on an extraordinary decision by Quins coach Dean Richards. Only he will know what possessed him to replace Evans with Chris Malone just before a penalty shot at goal wit ten minutes to go. Never mind that Evans had not had a bad game, he also had 70 minutes' experience of dealing with the gale at his back.
Malone missed, Ulster cleared, swept downfield, charged down a Malone clearance, hacked ahead, and Rory Best sealed the game by diving onto the ball in delight. Malone, the unwilling villain, put the restart out on the full, completely ending his side's chances of taking anything from the game.
Ulster led 16-0 at the end of a first half every bit as ugly as the weather that stormed in from the south west. Darren Cave's opening try after 65 seconds was as good as it got in terms of running rugby, thereafter all of Ulster's superiority was asserted at the breakdowns, of which there were many in the miserable conditions. It was not a day for running lines and long passes.
Cave's try was both excellent and soft. The ball came out from a scrum harmlessly enough with both Isaac Boss and Paddy Wallace running drifting lines, Cave took the straight line and left both markers floundering in his wake before cutting inside Mike Brown on his way to the posts. A fine try, but Charlie Amesbury and Jordan Turner-Hall were both guilty of ball-watching.
Aside from the scrum, nothing went right for the visitors. They lost five out of eight line-outs and conceded even more turnovers in open play. Even their lone chance for points, a penalty kick from Nick Evans, went awry, blown away from a direct course for the posts by an especially strong gust of wind.
Stephen Ferris and Kieron Dawson both scrabbled hard in some slackly-policed rucks and found all sorts of gems, while the Quins back row found it less easy to adapt to the loose policing policies of referee Romain Poite.
One area where the referee was more belligerent was the verbals; Nick Easter twice gave away an extra ten yards and was lucky not to get a yellow card, Danny Care did get a yellow card for a deliberate offside just before half-time as the referee's patience with Quins ran thinner and thinner.
Both times cost his side three points as well as the ten yards, with Ian Humphreys utilising the wind behind him efficiently. The fly-half landed three penalties to add to his conversion of Cave's try to give the 16-0 scoreline, the question to be answered was: would that be good enough with a gale and driving rain behind the English in the second half?
The weather really kicked in in the second half. The Ulster player faces made a good case for the permission of visors to be added to the legal kit list, as they squinted into the horizontal drops of rain. The posts swayed back and forth, umbrellas for the unfortunate holders of non-covered tickets blew inside out, even the corner flags blew flat. Yuk.
Little surprise that the visitors' score came from a period of sustained scrummaging then. After Clint Schifcofske had been forced to carry an Evans kick over his own line to concede a 5m scrum, the Quins pack embarked on a single-minded mission of destruction which culminated in a penalty try five minutes later to make the score 16-10 with 20 minutes to go.
Quins pressed and got themselves into the right position to steal a win, but then came Richards' mental implosion. A lifeline to Stade FranÃ§ais. Questions have to be asked.
Man of the match: Stephen Ferris was Ulster's energiser bunny. He was everywhere, doing everything.
Pens: Humphreys 3
Try: Penalty try
Yellow card: Care (35, Harlequins, deliberate offside)
Ulster: 15 Clinton Schifcofske, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Simon Danielli, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Chris Henry, 7 Kieron Dawson, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Ryan Caldwell, 4 Ed O'Donoghue, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Rory Best (Capt ), 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Justin Fitzpatrick, 18 Matt McCullough, 19 David Pollock, 20 Paul Marshall, 21 Paul Steinmetz, 22 Bryn Cunningham
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Tom Williams, 13 Gonzalo Tiesi, 12 Jordan Turner-Hall, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Will Skinner, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 George Robson, 4 James Percival,3 Mike Ross, 2 Chris Brooker, 1 Ceri Jones.
Replacements: 16 Aston Croall, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Jim Evans, 19 Tom Guest, 20 Andy Gomarsall, 21 Chris Malone, 22 Epi Taione.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)