Ulster feel the sting of latest early farewell
Wasps 26 Ulster 7
Pole position in Pool 1 coming into the weekend counted for little by the time all was said and done last night as Ulster made a winter exit from Europe for the fourth season in-a-row.
The province began knowing that a win would see them into the last eight, and in the end any form of victory would have been enough to top the pool, but they were battered by Wasps who saw their slim hopes of qualification extinguished despite taking five points.
To say Ulster were second best in Coventry would feel like a disservice to the gulf between two sides who adapted to poor conditions with radically different levels of success.
"We're disappointed. We had control of the pool," said director of rugby Les Kiss, after their third big defeat in the last five games.
"We went out and I thought there was plenty of attitude and energy. The components of our game were there to do something special.
"But we gave them too much, there were a few errors at critical times that gave them field position.
"Fair play to them, they played the conditions well. They had a cutting edge when they needed it."
Periods of the game when Ulster weren't under pressure felt like a rarity and, even as the rain teemed down on to an already-soggy pitch, Wasps were still able to play with an incision that made it feel as if the next try was always an inevitability.
While Ulster did show doggedness in defence, especially in a first half that finished only 14-7 despite they and the ball being virtual strangers, their error count ensured a foothold could never be secured.
It seemed that whenever Ulster had even the slimmest of openings, a crucial error would undo any progress, while a re-jigged backline was given plenty to think about.
With Wasps needing a sizeable and unlikely favour from Harlequins out in La Rochelle to have any hope of making the quarter-finals, it was clear from the outset that their marginal progression prospects had made little dent in their will to win.
This was no game of ebb and flow, Wasps were on top from minute one, virtually, to minute 80.
There were 12 minutes on the clock when they opened the scoring.
Ulster had been putting together what was a rare spell of retained possession in opposition territory when Rodney Ah You barrelled on to the ball and spilled it forward.
From the scrum, Wasps booted the ball clear and were back on the front foot when Rory Best's lineout throw was pinched by James Gaskell, leading to an Ulster offside.
Three mistakes in quick succession and the game had shifted from Wasps' 22 to Ulster's five-metre line. And they would pay the price for their transgressions when Guy Thompson was on the back of a rolling maul that never seemed likely to be halted.
It was a deserved lead but, having not been able to sustain any pressure, Ulster found themselves back in things soon after.
Jacob Stockdale had already been lost through a dead leg but they were handed a way to the line when Christian Wade inexplicably passed the ball straight to Louis Ludik.
The South African had Darren Cave in support and it was the centre who put Sean Reidy away for the score to knot things at 7-7.
But Ulster could do little with the stroke of good fortune. Wasps would carry a 14-7 lead into the break when Tom Cruse finished in the corner off a Danny Cipriani dink and Ulster were forced into further reshuffle when Ludik joined Stockdale on the sidelines.
Still in the game despite Wasps' domination, there was no improvement after the turn.
Again sloppy in attack and careless at the set-piece, the opposition flankers, Jack Willis and Thompson, were having a field day at the breakdown to account for a healthy dose of 19 forced turnovers.
There were just six minutes gone in the second half when Willie le Roux scampered across the line and into the corner.
Jake Cooper-Woolley's powerful effort was only salt in the wound, ensuring that even if Wasps would not qualify, they would still finish ahead of their opponents.
Even with the game gone, the visitors could not tidy up in possession, with a Christian Leali'ifano knock-on and a Joe Launchbury lineout steal ending their best attacks.
For Kiss and Ulster, it was another Jekyll and Hyde act. Having engendered such positivity with last week's stirring win over La Rochelle, they were as bad here as they had been good the previous Saturday.
Having had their destiny in their own hands this weekend, will be that this team fell flat when it mattered most. Again.
With a gap having already opened between themselves and the Conference B pace-setters Leinster and Scarlets, an away quarter-final in the PRO14 seems the best that can be expected domestically, and with Edinburgh breathing down their necks even that is not a given.
And a bad weekend got worse for Ulster with news emerging that their move for former All Black Stephen Donald has collapsed due to injury.
The World Cup winner had agreed to a short-term deal that would have seen him fill the void left by Leali'ifano's exit but, while Ulster were tight-lipped yesterday, the signing will now not go ahead with the 34-year-old not fit to play.
WASPS - W le Roux; C Wade, J de Jongh, K Eastmond (B Macken 66), M Watson (R Miller 55); D Cipriani, D Robson (J Simpson 61); S McIntyre (B Harris 61), T Cruse (A Johnson 62), J Cooper-Woolley (M Moore 61); J Launchbury, J Gaskell (K Myall 54); J Willis, G Thompson, N Carr.
ULSTER - C Piutau; L Ludik (J McPhillips 32), D Cave, S McCloskey, J Stockdale (R Lyttle 17); C Leali'ifano (D Shanahan 72), J Cooney; K McCall (A Warwick 54), R Best (R Herring 55), R Ah You (W Herbst 50); A O'Connor, K Treadwell (M Rea 55); I Henderson, S Reidy, N Timoney (C Henry 66).
Ref - Jerome Garces