Wednesday 22 January 2020

Pienaar delivers for Ulster

Ulster 22
Edinburgh 19

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Yes there were Edinburgh fans in Lansdowne Road yesterday, and they were grouped together in a small space on the lower east, significant because when the Ulstermen were doing their stand up party piece it was the only section of the stadium not on its feet.

A crowd of 45,147 turned up to see if Ulster's steady progress could take them into their second European final, or if Edinburgh -- already in new waters for them -- could surf another wave in knock-out competition, or sink as they do almost weekly in the Pro 12.

If you were to pick a contest from this weekend that was going to be in the classic mode then you would have backed this afternoon's tie in Bordeaux ahead of this pair, but on a clear and blustery evening -- those on the east side were in t- shirts, on the west they were in overcoats -- we got a high quality game of rugby, at the end of which Ulster were home and dry. They can thank man of the match Ruan Pienaar for a fantastic display.

The possession stats might suggest a different story, certainly for the first 40 minutes much of the ball flowing to the away side, for whom Mike Blair was outstanding. If the absence of Chris Henry tipped the balance of power in the back row in favour of Edinburgh then Blair was the beneficiary, for he got a stack of ball to play with from his loose forwards -- Netani Talei was excellent -- but at the end of the period they were somehow trailing. Ulster's defence was excellent.

Moreover 10 minutes of that spell had been with an extra man after Stefan Terblanche was sin binned for an open handed slap on Ross Ford who has holding him in at a ruck. They lived on Ulster land for those 10 minutes, and more, to no avail.

That tenure was marked by a mixture of bad luck and poor discipline. For example, Paddy Wallace could have joined Terblanche in the bin when from the ground he forced a knock on at the line from Talei. Result: Ulster scrum, no binning, no Edinburgh points.

Otherwise they gave up penalties unnecessarily, and after that run of five mistakes/setbacks in a row, they got ahead of their own kicker and Ruan Pienaar punished them from distance. Again.

Pienaar was lethal in that first 40, putting Ulster ahead in the fifth minute with a kick from half way that mist have been 60 metres on the angle. Greig Laidlaw levelled a few minutes later and then nudged his side ahead as they swarmed all over Ulster.

The set-piece was an issue though, and Declan Fitzpatrick looked extremely comfortable in dealing with Allan Jacbosen. On another day a referee might have pinged him for boring in on Ford from a five metre scrum but Romain Poite said it was fine and he was right. The result was a try for Pedrie Wannenberg for a 10-6 lead.

Until Pienaar's next strike though, on 38 minutes, Ulster hardly saw the ball, and then just before the break Laidlaw kicked another penalty to leave it 13-9 to Ulster at half time. The Edinburgh outhalf struck again six minutes into the second half to leave a point in it and the Ulster fans were wondering when their time on the ball would come.

As it happened, soon enough. Brilliant individual play by Pienaar gave them a great position in the Edinburgh 22, but from a series of scrums and lineouts they could get nothing. After heaps of pressure they looked certain to score off a ruck had they gone out the back only for Wannenberg to attack again close in and be nailed by none other than Laidlaw. It was a massive moment for the No 10, and his side, but Pienaar would do them again soon after with a 30-metre penalty to put Ulster 16-12 in front with the last quarter to play.

It was his fifth successful strike from as many attempts, and it complemented the other stuff he was doing around the field. If you're going to pay top dollar for a man you hope will change your outcomes then Pienaar personifies value for money.

With his team on top, but nervous about the possibility of seeing a seven point lead wiped out by one score, Pienaar was handed another opportunity on 76 minutes, inside 40 metres and with no angle. He nailed it, leaving the Scots needing to score twice. AS it turned out they could only manage one of them, a try for Jim Thompson, and that was in time added on. Ulster are on the way to Twickenham next month.

Ulster: S Terblanche (yc 29-39); A Trimble, D cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best (capt), D Fitzpatrick (A Macklin 66), J Muller, D Tuohy, S Ferrris, P Wannenberg, W Faloon (R Diack 74).

Edinburgh: T Brown; L Jones (J Thompson 71), N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser; G Laidlaw (capt), M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross, G Gilchrist, S Cox, D Denton, N Talei, R Rennie (R Grant 57).

Referee: R Poite (France)

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