Wednesday 16 October 2019

Wasps boost Ulster's bid to reach last eight

Ulster's John Cooney Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Ulster's John Cooney Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Jonathan Bradley

Going all the way to back to when the Champions Cup draw took place in Switzerland this July, it always felt likely that if Ulster were going to haul their way back into Europe's quarter-finals then two wins against Harlequins would be a minimum requirement.

While the Londoners have had the look of Pool 1's weakest side from the outset, after rolling up their sleeves in the Twickenham snow a week ago, there could be no slip-up back in Belfast and Les Kiss' men completed the job with a six-try success.

La Rochelle had been in charge of matters having taken maximum points from the first three rounds but came unstuck against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena yesterday afternoon, further boosting Ulster's bid to make the quarter-finals.

The Top 14 side now lead Ulster by just two points in the pool and will be in Belfast when the competition resumes in the second week of January.

And while yesterday's result helped Ulster's hopes of ultimately topping the pool, the Wasps victory maintained their own interest in the competition and left a three-way fight for a quarter-final spot.

On Friday with more than 30 missed tackles, four fluffed line-outs, and a 76pc success rate in the scrums, it wasn't always pretty but, in the end, the number that mattered most was 52.

That's how many points Ulster managed on the night, and while it still felt like the visitors scored too freely, it is worth remembering that John Cooney eclipsed their total of 24 all by himself, the scrum-half accounting for one try, five conversions and four penalties.

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"We had a couple of good plays and managed to get some good yards out wide," said assistant coach Dwayne Peel of the attack.

"We got some pretty quick guys at the back, and Louis Ludik at 13, which gives us some real speed in the team and we managed to use that.

"Obviously, a couple we scored at the end got us to the six tries but I think we were more composed.

"If we were honest with ourselves we've been making a few line breaks but we weren't finishing things or being a bit hasty on the ball."

It's the first time Ulster have won three European games before Christmas since 2014, the season they went six from six in the pool and made their last quarter-finals appearance - and there is no doubt that a return to the last eight would be a feather in the cap for a squad that could not deliver knock-out rugby in any form last season.

While the visit of La Rochelle, and a trip to Coventry to face Wasps, will be testing in the early weeks of 2018, results over the rest of the weekend have blown Pool 1 wide open for now.

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