Stormers – 17 Ulster – 15
Ulster skipper Iain Henderson stuck by his decision to back his side’s line-out maul in a heartbreaking URC semi-final defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town.
The visitors to the DHL Stadium – who would have hosted this week’s final at Ravenhill had they been victorious – led Saturday’s game for an hour, but didn’t score at all in the second-half and ultimately fell even after the South African side were reduced to 14 men.
That was not down to a lack of opportunities, with Ulster’s execution, especially in the third quarter, letting them down.
The side’s maul was such a potent weapon earlier in the season but was denuded of its power as the Stormers repelled each advance.
Even when Rob Herring did break off and looked to be driving toward the whitewash, he was brilliantly stopped by Seabelo Senatla – who had already saved a previous try when getting back to Billy Burns after a double chip and chase.
After a game decided by an 87th minute conversion, naturally there were questions of whether Ulster should have gone for the posts at any stage in the second-half, knowing a successful kick from John Cooney would have made it a two-score game.
Henderson, though, backed the calls from the field.
“We talked about it on the pitch,” said Henderson, whose head coach Dan McFarland reminded everyone none of the kicks were guaranteed.
“We all felt the maul was going well, it’s something that has gone well for us this season and we wanted to back it.
“With hindsight, another three points would have been lovely sitting in this seat now, but we have to back our maul and back what we did well all season.”
Rather than look back at the decision-making involved in the loss, the Irish international believes their season is over a week earlier than hoped due to an inability to make the most of their opportunities and a poor start.
“We let them score the first try of the game from a line-out maul in the first two minutes,” he said.
“We talked about not starting well but we were used to that the last time we played here and they went 14-0 up pretty early on.
“I think there were times around the park where our breakdown could have been a lot tidier. I think there were just small errors where we didn’t convert when we had the opportunities to.
“In other games we come away with three, five or seven points visiting an opposition’s third of the pitch or their ‘22’ – so that is where we need to fix things, capitalising [on opportunities],” he added.
“In that second-half we scored zero points and to win a game you need to score points.”
Next weekend’s final will now be staged in Cape Town, with the Stormers earning hosting duties having finished higher than the Bulls in the URC table.
JJ Kotze and Evan Roos had given the Stormers an early 10-0 lead, before tries from Rob Baloucoune and Stewart Moore, along with five points from the boot of Cooney, earned Ulster – beaten by only three points at the DHL Stadium during the regular season – an advantage that almost saw them to a famous victory.
Ulster arrived in Cape Town hoping to avoid a repeat of their slow start in that previous meeting, when the Stormers flew out of the blocks.
However, the hosts got off the mark early once again, with Kotze touching down from a driving maul after four minutes. Manie Libbok’s missed conversion attempt limited the damage.
The Stormers doubled their lead after 14 minutes as in-form number eight Roos shared a neat exchange of passes with scrum-half Herschel Jantjies down the right wing before going over.
Libbok was off target again from the tee and Ulster responded with a try of their own four minutes later. Baloucoune went over in the corner for a score that was awarded despite enthusiastic claims of a forward pass from the locals.
Cooney followed Libbok’s lead by failing to add the extras, but he was on target to send Ulster in front for the first time after Moore made the most of a well-executed Baloucoune offload to touch down.
Libbok miscued a drop-goal attempt after the Stormers struggled to find a way through the Ulster defence, and Cooney stretched the advantage to five points with a penalty on the stroke of half-time.
The Stormers’ task got even tougher when Smith was shown a red card for contact with the eyes of Iain Henderson 10 minutes from time, while URC top try scorer Leolin Zas had already been forced off through injury.
However, they put Ulster under immense pressure as the clock ticked towards 80 minutes.
A box-office conclusion saw Warrick Gelant score an 85th minute try and Libbok struck a nerveless winning conversion as the Stormers clinched it at the death.
Gelant found space on the left wing to pull level before Libbok – who had missed with all of his previous attempts at goal – fired over the winning kick.
Stormers: W Gelant; S Senatla, R Nel, D Willemse, L Zas (G Masilla 28); M Libbok, H Jantjies; S Kitshoff (B Harris 77), JJ Kotze (AH Venter 68), F Malherbe (N Fouche 61), S Moerat (E van Rhyn 68), M Morie (A Smith 68; rc 71), D Fourie (N Xaba 52), E Roos, H Dayimani.
Ulster: S Moore; R Baloucoune (B Moxham 47), J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns (I Madigan 82), J Cooney; A Warwick (E O’Sullivan 70), R Herring, T O’Toole (G Milasinovich 82), A O’Connor (K Treadwell 69), I Henderson, Marcus Rea (Mattie Rea 75), D Vermeulen, N Timoney
Ref: M Adamson (Scotland)