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Devastation for Ulster as Stormers set up all-South African URC final with last gasp try

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Seabelo Senatla of DHL Stormers is tackled by James Hume. Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Sportsfile

Seabelo Senatla of DHL Stormers is tackled by James Hume. Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Sportsfile

Seabelo Senatla of DHL Stormers is tackled by James Hume. Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Sportsfile

Ulster suffered yet more knock-out heartbreak after they let a lead slip to the Stormers with the clock four minutes into the red in their URC semi-final in South Africa.

The northern province had led through first-half tries from Robert Baloucoune and Stewart Moore but didn't score after the turn and, despite a red card for Adre Smith, Warrick Gelant's last-gasp try and Mannie Libbok's conversion sent the Cape Town side on to face the Bulls in next week's final.

Despite the relative lack of scoring, this was an action-packed encounter with the visitors to the DHL Stadium pouring everything into their late defensive effort to hold onto a lead they'd held for an hour, only to again come up short in their efforts to secure a first piece of silverware since the Celtic League title of 2006.

With the Bulls having taken Leinster out of the equation on Friday night, the considerable carrot of a home final was dangling in front of them only for this to end up another chapter in a long story of trophies proving elusive.

On their long journey back to Belfast, though, they may well rue how things started just as much as how they finished.

For all that was made about the ending of the game when these sides met back in March, Ulster's poor start played just as large a role in the result.

And it was the same again here with the Stormers so much quicker out of the blocks. There were fewer than five minutes on the clock when, after the fit-again Damian Willemse forced the breakdown turnover, the host's maul rolled ominously forward for hooker JJ Kotze to finish off.

Curiously, Mike Adamson appeared to signal for a penalty try before judging that the ball had made it over the whitewash regardless. It would prove to be a two-point reprieve for Ulster when Mannie Libbok missed the conversion.

A missed line-out and a knock-on ensured a pair of Stuart McCloskey turnovers counted for nought and before a quarter of an hour was played, the Stormers were over for a second.

Again it came from the line-out but with Ulster tooled up to defend against another maul the Stormers broke off quickly and, after a subtle exchange of passes with Herschel Jantjies, man of the moment Evan Roos was over.

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Ulster struck back almost immediately, playing off a line-out of their own to work Robert Baloucoune over in the corner, although there was more than a hint that the final pass from Stewart Moore had drifted forward.

The same pair combined in reverse to pull Ulster level. After another fine pass from James Hume found Baloucoune on the right touchline, the try-scorer cut inside and, having drawn three defenders towards him, offloaded brilliantly for Moore to canter home.

For as poorly as they started, Cooney's conversion ensured that Ulster led by the half-hour mark.

After Andrew Warwick was harshly penalised at the breakdown, the Stormers piled on the pressure as half-time approached but a stout defensive stand left the South Africans opting for a drop goal that sailed wide.

Instead, it would be Ulster extending the lead before the turn. A Marcus Rea turnover, followed by a Stormers transgression at the subsequent line-out, saw Cooney knock over a penalty in the last action before heading for the sheds.

The second-half began in unwelcome fashion for the visitors when Robert Baloucoune eventually limped out of the game with what appeared to be a hip injury. Occurring before contact, the winger had tried to play on with the knock but to no avail.

Still, it was Dan McFarland's men looking the likelier to score the next try. Stormers, though, were doing brilliantly to disrupt Ulster at the maul and deny them one of their usually potent weapons.

Given what had occurred in the first-half, the locals were none too pleased when one promising Stormers counter was halted due to a forward pass.

They had nobody to blame but themselves for their next squandered moment, though, with Libbok knocking a kick to the corner dead when his side had opted against going for the posts from a central penalty.

Still they came again. With time ebbing away, and still with no score in the second-half, this time it was Duane Vermeulen making the key turnover after Iain Henderson's tackle.

When Ulster knocked the penalty to the line, Adre Smith, the replacement lock not long on the pitch, was shown a red card for making contact with the eye area of Henderson but even with the extra man, the exertions of their cross-hemisphere travel were clear.

They had to scramble back to stop Senatla before a huge instance of maul defence saved the day when a try seemed certain.

Stewart Moore's left boot did well to relieve the pressure and Vermeulen got up to steal the line-out.

But when the same man was pinged for making a tackle from the ground, it set up one last chance with the clock in the red.

And, ultimately, with the clock showing 84 minutes, they played off the scrum with Libbok's brilliant sweeping pass to the sideline giving full-back Warrick Gelant the most crucial try of the season.

The out-half, who had already missed two conversions and a drop goal, still had to add the extras to avoid extra time, but on this occasion he was on the money.

An all-South African final will be staged in Cape Town next weekend. For Ulster, the season is over and the wait goes on.

DHL Stormers: W Gelant; S Senatla, R Nel, D Willemse, L Zas; M Libbok, H Jantjies; S Kitshoff (captain), JJ Kotze, F Malherbe; S Moerat, M Orie; D Fourie, H Dayimani, E Roos.

Replacements: N Xaba (for Fourie 26-36, 67), G Masimla (for Zas, 33), N Fouche (for Malherbe, 60), AH Venter (for Kotze, 67) A Smith (for Orie, 67), E van Rhyn (for Masimla, 74), B Harris (for Kitshoff, 76) Not used: S Mngomezulu
Ulster Rugby: S Moore; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, T O’Toole; A O’Connor, I Henderson (captain); M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.

Replacements: B Moxham (for Baloucoune, 47), K Treadwell (for O'Connor, 67), E O'Sullivan (for Warwick, 70), Mattie Rea (for Marcus Rea, 74) I Madigan, (for Burns, 81). G Milasinovich (for O'Toole, 83). Not used: J Andrew, N Doak.

Referee: M Adamson (SRU)

Player of the Match: D Willemse


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