Cooney turns tide as Ulster dig deep to book last-eight spot
Leicester 13 Ulster 14
Having ended Ulster's five-year wait for a Champions Cup quarter-final spot at the first attempt, Dan McFarland could afford a satisfied smile.
Ordinarily, the coach addresses his troops in the immediate aftermath of a game but yesterday at Welford Road he simply congratulated his team on a job well done and toasted them with a well-earned bottle of beer.
The former Connacht and Scotland assistant conceded that his team were below par for 50 minutes at Welford Road. They found themselves in a 13-0 hole, facing a scenario where they needed a favour from elsewhere to qualify but showed huge character to wrest control of their own destiny back.
John Cooney came off the bench to run the show, with tries from Marty Moore and Robert Baloucoune and conversions from the scrum-half getting Ulster's nose in front.
They will go away in the quarter-final and will find out their destination this evening when Leinster and Toulouse conclude the pool stages.
If the French side fail to get a bonus point at home to Bath, then Ulster will face Leinster at the Aviva Stadium but if both sides get five points then it is a re-match with Racing 92, who won this pool by four points.
"In all honesty at the minute I don't mind," McFarland said of the potential opponents.
"We're in a quarter-final, any of those sides is going to be really tough. We're going away from home, we're going to play one of the four best sides in Europe as it stands at the moment.
"We're in the top eight in Europe, great. I think play-off football is where you want to be.
"If you want to put yourself into a position where you're challenging for championships, then you've got to be playing play-off football and you've got to be doing it regularly.
"I looked at what people said, I don't know if they described it as a group of death, but they certainly described it as probably the hardest group and we've come out of it with five wins. We're going to be in an away quarter-final, Racing are a good side and ultimately they bested us over those two legs.
"But, in terms of what we've done this year, it is a credit to the players who have been out there and the other coaches that we're in the position we are.
"I wanted to get in on merit. I didn't want to be sitting here watching the Munster game (needing a favour). I actually said that at half-time, in a little bit of a bad mood, but they did it."
For 40 minutes, that scenario looked unlikely.
Ulster's 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 and tries from Moore and 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.
They couldn't get any momentum during a scrappy first half and ultimately found themselves 10-0 down at the break.
George Ford opened the scoring with a penalty before laying on the opening try for Matt Toomua with a neat chip on the cusp of half-time.
The out-half converted to make it 10-0 at the break, while Billy Burns slapped the ball out of Ben Youngs' hands early in the second half to give Ford the chance to extend the lead to 13.
McFarland introduced Cooney and loosehead Andy Warwick and the momentum shifted.
The Ulster scrum earned a penalty and while that came to nothing Ulster kept pressing. A neat Billy Burns cross-kick to Nick Timoney saw him feed Sean Reidy, but the flanker knocked on in Ford's tackle.
With Ulster winning collisions and Cooney now running the show, 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 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 Baloucoune latched on to Burns' deft chip to make it 13-12 before the clinical 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 and their defence saw it out from there.
Last year's strife suddenly seems a distant memory.
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).
Referee: A Ruiz (France).
Sunday Indo Sport