Ulster secure home URC quarter-final as second half comeback leads to bonus point win over Bulls

Ulster 32 Bulls 23

25 March 2023; Nick Timoney of Ulster is tackled by Marco van Staden of Vodacom Bulls during the United Rugby Championship match between Ulster and Vodacom Bulls at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Jonathan Bradley

A Tom Stewart hat-trick helped Ulster secure their spot in the URC's top four as they powered their way past the Bulls at Ravenhill.

Still third in the table after the bonus-point victory, when coupled with Munster's loss to Glasgow earlier in the day the northern province can now fall no lower than fourth over the season's final two rounds and know they will play their quarter-final tie at the very least at home.

Second place, and with it a semi-final in BT6 should they get there, remains on the cards too but would require a Stormers slip up in the season's final fortnight.

Winners of five of their last six, they can take momentum too into next weekend's key Champions Cup last-16 clash with Leinster in the Aviva Stadium.

For a game that will be best remembered for Stewart's trio of close range scores that took the hooker's seasonal tally to 14, Ulster's best score of the night was their first.

There were just two and half minutes on the clock when they opened the scoring with Rob Baloucoune marking his return to the side after injury with a well-worked score.

After Bulls were pinged for crossing, Billy Burns went down the line and Ulster played off the top of the line-out. Mike Lowry made the crucial line-break before giving the pass to Baloucoune whose speed down the touchline was always going to see him over.

With Doak's conversion missing the target, the Bulls' Chris Smith cut his side's deficit to 5-3 with the second of two early penalty attempts.

Kurt-Lee Arendse was looking particularly dangerous for the visitors with the fleet-footed full-back leaving Ulster tacklers grasping at air on one mazy run.

Ulster, though, breathed a sigh of relief when his offload to former 'Bok centre Cornal Hendricks led to a knock on.

Arendse would be over soon enough though, scoring his side's first try of the game as the first quarter came to an end after his international team-mate Canan Moodie's chip and chase had cut through the Ulster back-field cover.

A game that had started so promisingly for Ulster all of a sudden saw them trail by five points.

Their route back into things would be aided by the TMO. A call to referee Craig Evans saw a penalty reversed, allowing Ulster to go to the corner and set up their potent maul.

On the first two attempts, the Bulls infringed to draw a warning but on the third there was to be no stopping Stewart who broke off the base and scored in the corner.

Doak's testing conversion from the sideline put Ulster back into the lead.

In what was a real back-and-forth half, Ulster were undone by a classic scrum-half dummy by Zak Burger on their own line for the Bulls to retake the lead and, after wasting a brilliant 50:22 by Jacob Stockdale when the maul left the ball behind, they would go in at the turn down by eight after another Smith penalty to close the half.

The Bulls indiscipline in their own '22' was finally punished in the minutes after the restart when Elrigh Louw was sent to the bin and, against 14 men, Ulster piled into the maul with all but three backs joining the drive. Again Stewart was the man applying the finishing touches and Doak's conversion made it a one-point game.

To their credit, the Bulls spent much of ensuing minutes on the front-foot only to be undone by a stout defensive stand on their own line. Still, Jake White's side will have been heartened by how they handled the sin binning period. Louw would return without Ulster having threatened beyond that initial maul score.

The number eight's first involvement back in the game, however, would require him to add his considerable heft to yet more maul defence after a skewed clearing kick gave uster another promising platform.

They'd hold out from the set-piece this time but Stewart wasn't to be denied his third score. After Ulster worked the ball infield through the forwards, the hooker completed his hat-trick with a determined finish through a host of bodies that saw the lead change hands for a final time on the evening.

Smith's third penalty of the night brought the Bulls back within three but a high tackle from Ruan Vermaak allowed Doak to cancel out the kick.

Ulster were still in a real battle but a late yellow card for experienced Springbok hooker Bismark du Plessis, only on as a late replacement, would aid the hosts in seeing out the game.

Indeed, somewhat harshly, the Bulls would get no reward for their efforts with John Cooney's last kick of the game pushing them out of losing bonus-point range.

Ulster: Mike Lowry, Rob Baloucoune, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, Nathan Doak, Andy Warwick, Tom Stewart, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Kieran Treadwell, Sam Carter, David McCann, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen (capt). Replacements: John Andrew (for Stewart, 77), Eric O’Sullivan (for Warwick, 50), Gareth Milasinovich (for Toomaga-Allen, 61), Alan O’Connor (for Treadwell, 61), Harry Sheridan (for O'Sullivan, 50), John Cooney (for Doak, 77), Jude Postlethwaite (for Moore 50), Marcus Rea (for McCann, 61).

Bulls: Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie, Cornal Hendricks, Harold Vorster, David Kriel, Chris Smith, Zak Burger, Gerhard Steenekamp, Johann Grobbelaar, Mornay Smith, Ruan Vermaak, Ruan Nortje (CAPT), Marco van Staden, Cyle Brink, Elrigh Louw. Replacements: Bismarck Du Plessis (for van Standen, 72), Simphiwe Matanzima (for Steenekamp, 74), Francois Klopper (for M Smith, 54), Janko Swanepoel (for Vermaak, 74), WJ Steenkamp (for Brink, 63), Embrose Papier (for Burger, 56), Morne Steyn, Stedman Gans (for Arendse, 74). Not used: M Steyn

Referee: Craig Evans.