Ulster secure first Champions Cup quarter-final place since 2014 after impressive comeback in Leicester
Leicester 13 Ulster 14
Ulster came into this afternoon’s meeting with Leicester Tigers needing a losing bonus point to ensure their place in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 2014 and for 50 minutes it looked utterly beyond them.
Then they brought on John Cooney.
When the Dubliner was introduced 10 minutes into the second-half, his team was 13-0 down and struggling badly. He didn’t do anything flashy, but his presence appeared to calm his team-mates who stepped up
Half an hour later they had done enough to set up a possible Aviva Stadium date with Leinster, presuming the champions do their bit against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena tomorrow.
If they are to progress any further than the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals, they will need massive improvements across the park, but their resolve to storm back and claim a memorable victory was impressive.
For 40 minutes, their performance fell well below the standards they had previously set in this competition as they failed to establish any attacking platform whatsoever.
Rory Best’s lineout throwing was poor, their scrum was creaky and their work under the high ball was shaky. On their rare forays into opposition territory, their passing was loose and their ball protection at the breakdown poor.
Perhaps it was fatigue after last week’s effort in beating Racing, but so many Ulster stars failed to fire.
Yet, once Cooney came into the fray he exuded calm and his team-mates responded by stepping up their game with tries from Marty Moore and Robert Baloucoune – both converted by Cooney – just doing enough.
Once the celebrations have died down, they’ll look long and hard at how they managed to get themselves in such a hole.
After a scrappy opening, they were forced into some early defensive work as the Tigers probed for an opening.
Marcell Coetzee delivered a thundering tackle on Jonah Holmes, before Best’s crooked throw offered Ben Youngs a chance to snipe down the left, stepping Baloucoune before the covering Dave Shanahan forced him into touch.
Louis Ludik had to be alert to bring Dan Cole down after the tighthead prop left Jordi Murphy wrong-footed, but again Leicester let their visitors off the hook when Ford knocked Youngs’ pass on.
After 25 minutes of operating with no attacking platform, Ulster finally got an in to the game when Brendon O’Connor went high on Will Addison and the centre kicked the ball to the edge of the ’22.
But yet again Best’s throw went astray and instead they were forced into more defending before Moore went off his feet at the ruck and handed Ford a chance to open the scoring after 32 minutes.
The lead was no more than the Tigers deserved and, after another visit to opposition territory came and went with no reward, the Irish province lost key man Coetzee to injury.
As a poor quality half lurched towards a conclusion, the Leicester scrum forced a penalty that had been coming all afternoon.
And from there the home side extended their lead on the stroke of half-time, with Matt Toomua brilliantly pounced on Ford’s neat chip through to score the game’s first try.
The out-half converted to make it 10-0 at the break, while Billy Burns slapped the ball out of Youngs’ hands early in the second-half to give Ford the chance to extend the lead.
With Andy Warwick on at loosehead, the Ulster scrum earned a penalty and Best went to the corner only for the defending Tigers to somehow turn the maul over.
Ulster kept pressing; a neat Burns’ cross-kick to Nick Timioney saw him feed Sean Reidy, but the flanker knocked on in Ford’s tackle.
Suddenly, with Cooney now running the show from scrum-half after replacing Dave Shanahan, the visiting side were transformed.
They took Leicester through 13 defensive phases before forcing a penalty, kicked to touch and then turned to their maul. This time they got the nudge and Marty Moore peeled off the tail to score his first Ulster try.
Cooney converted brilliantly to put his side within bonus point range and he was stepping up again minutes later as Robert Baloucoune latched on to Burns’ deft chip to make it 13-12 before the scrum-half’s conversion put his side in front.
Winger Baloucoune had to be alert to deny Greg Bateman after the prop broke the Ulster line as the visitors began a long defensive stand.
Jordi Murphy and Best combined for a key turnover as the pressure mounted under their own posts while Facunda Gigena threw a crooked lineout as Leicester went for one last push.
It never came. Ulster got their win and now wait to see who they will face in their first Champions Cup quarter-final since 2014.
Scorers: Leicester: M Toomua try, G Ford 2 pens, 1 con; Ulster: M Moore, R Baloucoune try each; J Cooney 2 cons;
LEICESTER TIGERS – J Holmes; J May, M Tuilagi, M Toomua, J Olofela; G Ford (capt), B Youngs; G Bateman (F Gigena 67), J Kerr (R McMillan 67), D Cole (J Heyes 67); M Fitzgerald, G Kitchener (H Wells 60); M Williams, B O’Connor (W Evans h-t), S Kalamafoni.
ULSTER – L Ludik; R Baloucoune, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, D Shanahan (J Cooney 50); E O’Sullivan (A Warwick 50), R Best (capt), M Moore (R Kane 77); I Henderson, K Treadwell (A O’Connor 65); S Reidy (R Herring 65), J Murphy, M Coetzee (N Timoney 36).
Ref – A Ruiz (France)