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Ulster show their teeth as Leicester Tigers' hopes fade

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Ulster’s Darren Cave celebrates as he runs in to score his side’s second try. Photo: John Dickson

Ulster’s Darren Cave celebrates as he runs in to score his side’s second try. Photo: John Dickson

Darren Cave runs in to score Ulster's first try of the game

Darren Cave runs in to score Ulster's first try of the game

SPORTSFILE

Iain Henderson is held up by Leicester Tiger's Tom Croft, left, and Jordan Crane

Iain Henderson is held up by Leicester Tiger's Tom Croft, left, and Jordan Crane

SPORTSFILE

Darren Cave dives over to score his third try of the game despite the tackle of Vereniki Gonevar, Leicester Tigers.

Darren Cave dives over to score his third try of the game despite the tackle of Vereniki Gonevar, Leicester Tigers.

SPORTSFILE

Ulster's Franco Van Der Merwe charges through a tackle from Leicester's Marcos Ayerza

Ulster's Franco Van Der Merwe charges through a tackle from Leicester's Marcos Ayerza

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Ulster’s Darren Cave celebrates as he runs in to score his side’s second try. Photo: John Dickson

After a horrible defeat, Ulster proved they can still turn it on when pushed to it.

It may have only been a matter of pride for home side, but they showed they were hurting from the previous weekend's rout at the hands of Toulon.

While the result is fairly meaningless in that Ulster's interest in Europe had already been well and truly ended, this was more than a mere face-saving exercise to avoid finishing bottom of Pool Three or one merely designed to down the Tigers' already faint hopes of dragging themselves out of the group.

This was a performance that had to be delivered after their troubles of late, as they look to secure a PRO12 play-off place. It was a display to remind Neil Doak and the supporters they could produce something which was essentially crafted from the Munster motto of having to 'stand up and fight'.

It consigned the Tigers to a fourth European defeat from the same number of visits to Belfast and only Toulon have won at the Kingspan this season.

Ulster played as if their lives depended on the outcome, exemplified in the sheer doggedness of their defensive effort when severely under the cosh in the second half. For several minutes, Ulster were down to 13 men, with both Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst kicking their heels in the bin, and still refused to yield when it seemed that the Tigers - now trailing 26-7 and in the ascendency - just had to score.

It was notable that the English outfit ultimately sought their only refuge from kicking the ball away.

With 14 players back for the last 10 minutes, Ulster held firm. The tackles flew with Doak's men making a bone-shuddering 167 to Leicester's 79 and Roger Wilson leading the way with 18 hits and Luke Marshall 15, while it was the visitors who dominated possession (64pc) and territory (63pc).

But it's what you do with it that counts and the Tigers had no means of getting near the bonus-point win they were chasing thanks to Ulster's visceral commitment to the tackle in the wake of their dream first 45 minutes, which saw Darren Cave bag his first ever hat-trick and Craig Gilroy deliver the bonus score to take the home side into a pretty secure-looking 26-0 lead.

Cave's wonderful trio all came about from the team's desire to hit the spaces with precise execution, something that has not really been seen with enough regularity, while Gilroy's try was created from the platform provided by Ulster's mostly solid scrummage.

The most striking of Cave's scores was the second, a result of the speed in which Ulster turned defence into attack. A long hoof downfield saw the Tigers lose possession at a ruck and Wilson was on it to send Alan O'Connor barrelling forward into the Leicester 22.

Ulster recycled a couple of times before Humphreys - who had already been the supplier for Cave's first score after 19 minutes - spotted a mismatch in Tigers' second row Graham Kitchener and took him on his outside before throwing a pass back inside to hit Cave, who ran through to dot down under the posts.

With half-time just two minutes away, this was a killer blow in what had already been a game where both sides had shown they were up for attacking rugby first and foremost - Leicester because they had to pursue a try bonus and Ulster simply because they wanted to match their visitors.

Excellent

And with Cave's hat-trick arriving three minutes after the restart, followed two minutes later by the excellent Gilroy's strike - with two conversions following from Ruan Pienaar - the Tigers knew the game was up.

Another who stood out was the returning Iain Henderson who put together a pretty big shift for his first 58 minutes of rugby this season, while skipper Rory Best - line-out issues aside - was an immense presence along with Franco van der Merwe.

A moment that effectively summed it all up arrived in the 68th minute, just before 14-man Ulster were reduced to 13, when an attempt at a driving maul from the Tigers was shunted sideways and backwards by the home pack and Freddie Burns just decided to put the ball skywards - not the last time Leicester just seemed to have run out of ideas.

Ulster - J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, W Herbst; A O'Connor F Van Der Merwe; I Henderson, M McComish, R Wilson. Reps: C Ross for M McComish (45 mins), N McComb for I Henderson (58mins), A Warwick for N McComb (61mins), L Stevenson for O'Connor (65mins), B Ross for C Black (74mins), R Herring for R Best (74mins).

Leicester - M Tait; A Thompstone, V Goneva, S Bai, M Benjamin; F Burns, B Youngs, M Ayerza, T Youngs, L Mulipola; G Kitchener, G Parling; T Croft, J Salvi, J Crane. Reps: S De Chaves for G Parling (3mins), F Balmain for L Mulipola (56mins), R Barbieri for (J Crane 56mins), M Rizzo for M Ayerza (56mins), L Ghiraldini for T Youngs (56mins) S Harrison for B Youngs (70mins), N Morris for A Thompstone (70mins).

Ref - P Guazere (France).

Attendance 15,659

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