A John Cooney penalty snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for Ulster Rugby as they remain top of the group at the half way mark.
It was by no means a vintage performance from Ulster but the start they made was certainly impressive albeit the opening try alluded them until after the half way mark.
Ulster ball carriers continually broke the gain line with Stuart McCloskey especially racking up numerous gain line successes. McCloskey was the heart beat of all of home side’s success yesterday evening, scoring one try and setting up Sean Reidy for Ulster’s opening try in the 32nd minute. In total, the Bangor man carried for 116m off 19 carries.
It could have been a lot more comfortable for Dan McFarland’s men with John Cooney failing to put Louis Ludik in at the corner in a two-on-one with Gabriel Ibitoye while if Craig Gilroy had held his line he would have capitalised on a McCloskey offload towards the end of the first half.
Nevertheless it was a terrific battle between two fairly even sides. Alex Dombrandt stood out for the visitors with a couple of turnovers as well as a 50m dash off an intercept to set up his hooker Elia Elia for his second try.
Defensively Ulster weren’t bad. Although they conceded a lot of linebreaks, they generally had men sweeping across limiting the impact. It’s hard to judge a defensive performance on the number of missed tackles, but there were a couple of occasions where poor tackling created a linebreak for Paul Gustard’s men.
Cooney opened the scoring for Ulster with a penalty after eight minutes when Ulster had all the possession and looked completely dominant. A Marcus Smith penalty two minutes later wiped out all of Ulster’s hard work in the opening exchanges.
Dombrandt crossed for the opening try after 25 minutes after picking a terrific line off Kyle Sinckler. The pop pass left the scrambling Ulster defence no chance as the former England U20 crashed over from five metres out.
A trademark Billy Burns cross kick to McCloskey got Ulster out of the try scoring blocks with an offload to Reidy allowing the flanker to cross the whitewash. We saw last week how Ulster exploited the Scarlets in this facet but they used it sparingly last night down to the homework carried out by Quins midweek. With Billy Burns at ten, he doesn’t look like misplacing too many of these kicks so it will continue to be a potent weapon for Ulster in the coming weeks.
A trademark bulldozing run from McCloskey at the start of the second half scored Ulster’s second try before a quickfire double from Elia Elia left Dan McFarland’s men with an uphill battle in the last quarter.
Harlequins’ third try rattled Ulster for a few minutes with a lineout going array and a few poor decisions from experienced heads. They regained composure and Adam McBurney crossed with 13 minutes remaining and Cooney’s conversion made it a two point game.
As he has done so many times in the previous two seasons at Ulster, Cooney stepped to the plate with a minute left to secure the crucial win for Ulster and keep them top of their European group.
Where now for Ulster?
Clermont’s bonus point win at Bath on Friday night leaves them just a point behind the Ulstermen in second place. I’m expecting them to take the maximum in the Stade Marcel-Michelin next week putting them on 16 points with the crunch home match against Ulster in the new year.
This is a much tougher group for Ulster to get out of compared to last season where they were up against a Leicester Tigers side on a downward spiral and a Scarlets side in transition but they have set themselves up nicely with three opening victories.
Harlequins are still in with a shout of qualifying as three bonus point wins would see them finish on 20 points so I doubt they’ll rotate their side like they did against Ulster two seasons ago, though the northern province should have the confidence to go to the Stoop and come away with a win on Friday night.
Crucially, the ball is in Ulster’s court and it’s not an unrealistic expectation for them to reach the quarter finals for the second time in a row.