Inspired Ulster dig deep to finish top of the pile
Leicester 19 Ulster 22
An inspired collective effort by the northern province put them through to the quarter-finals as the top qualifiers. Home beckons in the last eight in a match against Saracens. A virtuoso performance by their South African, Ruan Pienaar, was the individual brilliance on this group achievement. The scrum-half scored all his team's points with a flawless kicking display and a try.
It wasn't progress entirely on the front foot. Leicester, with an eye on a home tie of their own, were never going to make it easy. Instead they will now be one of the best runners-up, and will have to play away in the next round against Toulon.
Given what was at stake, it was bound to be ferocious up front. Ulster found themselves bent out of shape at the scrum from the earliest engagement and John Afoa, never as forceful here as he is on the hoof in open play, was penalised. Toby Flood kicked the first of his four penalties.
If the home team had the edge at the set-piece scrum, Ulster had Nick Williams on the charge, as liable to be a one-man wrecking ball as the Leicester eight. He didn't always time his runs to perfection -- he knocked on twice in the first half -- but when he accelerated on to the ball, he always left a tackler or three on their rear. Flood extended the lead to six points with his second penalty, but Ulster responded almost immediately with a dynamic drive from a lineout.
It was the first collective threat from the visitors, an answer to the scrum deficiency and earned them three points after Leicester pulled the threat down.
The run of the first half belonged to Graham Kitchener, the second-row who surged through the defence and went on a long arc for the line, outstripping Pienaar, who was grateful to see Jared Payne tackle the lock into touch. The lineout led to a scrum, which led to more trouble for Ulster. A binding was slipped under pressure and Flood kicked his third penalty.
It didn't take long for Pienaar to level the scores. A second penalty came from another of those driving mauls after a lineout, a third was for not releasing. Perhaps Leicester felt safe in their own half -- they weren't because the South African banged the kick over from 52 metres out.
All-square at 9-9 at half-time, Leicester came out in forthright mood and won a penalty immediately at a scrum. This one was slightly different because Ulster had applied a drive of their own, but Chris Henry had detached himself too soon. Flood, who had pulled a fourth penalty attempt to the left of the posts at the end of the first half, recalibrated his sights and put Leicester ahead.
A couple of minutes later, Flood pushed his team into a good position with two kicks out of hand, and with a third, of the most delicate precision, gave Niall Morris a chance to win a race to the line against Paddy Jackson. The outside half tackled the wing early but Morris had the strength to ride the challenge, gather and score. Flood converted imperiously from the touchline.
Ulster trailed by 10 points and Leicester survived the first wave of attacks with absolute resilience. But back came the visitors and a brick was popped out of the wall -- Tom Youngs went off his feet. Pienaar kicked his fourth penalty from four attempts and was soon lining up a conversion to level the scores.
A conversion, that is, of his own try. If Flood had been kicking beautifully out of hand, he delayed a fraction of a second too long and had his clearance charged down by Pienaar. It was inevitable that he and only he would put Ulster into the lead for the first time. He kicked his fifth penalty to raise his personal tally to 22.
There was time aplenty for Leicester to give the game another twist.
They pounded their way into the Ulster 22 and were awarded a scrum. This would surely be the telling point, with the advantage weighted heavily in their favour.
Tom Court was on in the Ulster front row, a replacement for Callum Black. Scrummaging has never knowingly been his strong point, but all of a sudden Ulster were driving Leicester backwards strongly, shunting the mighty pack off the ball.
It was the ultimate statement, to finish stronger at the very area that had exposed them at the other end of the game earlier in the match.
Leicester regrouped and were awarded one last chance to put an attack together but that one scrum had given the Ulstermen a huge boost. They hurled themselves into their last defensive duties and pushed the Tigers one last time into touch.
Leicester will have to go on the road to France. It is not the end of the world but losing in their own stronghold will make their task ahead seem all the more daunting. For Ulster, read the reverse.
Scorers -- Leicester: Morris try; Flood con, 4 pens. Ulster: Pienaar try, con, 5 pens.
Leicester: M Tait (S Hamilton 38); N Morris, M Smith, A Allen, N Goneva, T Flood, B Youngs (D Mele 69), M Ayerza, T Youngs (R Hawkins 68), D Cole, E Slater, G Kitchener (L Deacon 46), J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane (S Mafi 19).
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy, P Jackson, R Pienaar, C Black (R Diack 55), R Best, J Afoa, J Muller, D Tuohy (I Henderson 64), R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams (T Court 55).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).