Ulster produce rousing comeback in Leicester to claim a precious quarter-final

Leicester 13

Ulster 14

Murray Kinsella reports from Welford Road

FOR 50 MINUTES in Leicester, it looked as though Ulster were doing everything in their power to prevent themselves from reaching the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup.

Absent from the quarter-finals since 2014, they trailed the Tigers 13-0 and had delivered an error-strewn display that left them facing the prospect of leaving their fate in others’ hands.

Stuart McCloskey makes a big carry for Ulster. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

But the introduction of John Cooney, returning from a back issue on the bench, for the closing 30 minutes finally sparked Dan McFarland’s side into life as they swept to two converted tries through tighthead Marty Moore and right wing Robert Baloucoune.

Having shown their resilience to grab the lead, Ulster then had to demonstrate defensive mettle in the closing stages to secure the win, Baloucoune making a superb try-saving tackle and Jordi Murphy combining with captain Rory Best for a crucial turnover penalty in the 74th minute. 

The nature of the comeback was impressive from Ulster, though it won’t completely mask the poor performance beforehand, with McFarland’s men requiring major improvement if they are not to bow out in the last eight at the end of March.

They will, though, will take pride from their show of character as they await confirmation of their quarter-final opposition. Cooney’s sheer composure was instrumental in allowing them to settle and claw their way back into this tie in Leicester, while Iain Henderson was man of the match on his own return from a thumb injury.

Ulster will be on the road for that knock-out game and a clash with Leinster is possible, although Leo Cullen’s side must get the job done away to Wasps tomorrow.

Leinster v Ulster in the Aviva Stadium is an enticing prospect, although a bonus-point win for Toulouse tomorrow against Bath would see Ulster travelling to Racing 92 instead. 

Ulster showed great character. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The first-half at Welford Road was, in truth, a miserable affair in very cold conditions with both sides contributing high error counts.

Ulster’s lineout was poor, with Rory Best’s throw at fault on a couple of occasions, and when the visitors did get a platform, they simply couldn’t retain possession in order to break Leicester.

Their most promising attack, as late as the 35th minute, saw Stuart McCloskey charge into Ford’s tackle and offload to scrum-half Dave Shanahan. But McCloskey didn’t secure the subsequent ruck, advancing beyond the ball and allowing Leicester a simple steal.

The Ulster scrum then began to struggle in the closing minutes of the half, giving up a penalty to allow Leicester into their half, then conceding a free-kick even after Manu Tuilagi knocked-on in the resulting lineout attack.

It meant one final opportunity for Leicester as they battered through the phases in Ulster’s 22 until Ford cleverly rolled a grubber in behind Ulster for centre Matt Toomua to chase, the Australian beating the dead-ball line to the ball and dotting down.

Ford’s impressive conversion from the touchline sent Ulster in 10-0 down. 

Matt Toomua scored just before half-time. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Having also lost number eight Marcell Coetzee to injury late in the second half, McFarland’s men needed to find a response quickly but instead picked up where they had left off.

Sean Reidy was pinged for a high tackle on Jonny May soon after Addison has missed touch with an Ulster penalty, with Leicester kicking down the right and into the Irish province’s 22.

Tuilagi carried superbly off the lineout and then Burns slapped the ball out of Ben Youngs’ hands from an illegal position in the ruck to allow Ford to kick Leicester 13-0 in front.

McFarland responded by sending in John Cooney and somehow that change shifted the momentum of the game, with Tuilagi making an error from the restart – a forward pass inside his own 22 that was turned into a scrum penalty by the Ulster pack.

Into the right corner they went but a ferocious Leicester counter-drive produced another turnover in contact.  

There was another big chance a minute later as Burns’ cross-field kick found Nick Timoney – on for Coetzee – in space wide on the left in the Tigers’ 22. Timoney offloaded inside to Reidy but he knocked-on in the tackle to end that promising attack.

Ulster struggled for the opening half of the game. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But Ulster simply wouldn’t let up now as Cooney’s composure rubbed off on his team-mates and they earned another penalty to go into the left corner, building a strong maul that ended with Moore splintering off to dot down a try.

Cooney casually converted from wide on the left to bring Ulster back to 13-7 with a quarter of the game left. 

With the impressive travelling support now in full voice, everything was suddenly clicking for Ulster as their attack swept at the Tigers. The home team overthrew a lineout in their own 22 to hand McFarland’s side another chance and they pounced to take the lead.

This time, it was the ingenuity of Burns that created the score, the out-half dinking a chip over the advancing Leicester defence to allow wing Robert Baloucoune to gather the ball in and round underneath the posts for his second try in two Heineken Cup games.

Cooney converted to send Ulster into the lead and Baloucoune was called upon at the other end of the pitch to make a stunning tackle on Greg Bateman when it looked like he would score under the sticks.

Best and Murphy worked well together for a massive turnover penalty underneath the Ulster posts with just six minutes left, meaning the visitors were able to see out their victory and celebrate a quarter-final achievement.

Leicester scorers:

Tries: Matt Toomua

Conversions: George Ford [1 from 1]

Penalties: George Ford [1 from 1]

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Marty Moore, Robert Baloucoune

Conversions: John Cooney [2 from 2] 

LEICESTER: Jonah Holmes; Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, Matt Toomua, Jordan Olowofela (Sam Aspland-Robinson ;74); George Ford (captain), Ben Youngs (Ben White ’74); Greg Bateman (Facundo Gigena ’67), Jake Kerr (Ross McMillan ’67), Dan Cole (Joe Heyes ’67); Mike Fitzgerald, Graham Kitchener (Harry Wells ’60); Mike Williams, Brendon O’Connor (Will Evans ‘HT), Sione Kalamafoni.

Replacements: Joe Ford. 

ULSTER: Louis Ludik; Robert Baloucoune, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns (Michael Lowry ’70), Dave Shanahan (John Cooney ’50); Eric O’Sullivan (Andy Warwick ’50), Rory Best (captain), Marty Moore (Ross Kane ’77); Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell (Alan O’Connor ’65); Sean Reidy (Rob Herring ’66), Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee (Nick Timoney ’36).

Replacements: Darren Cave.

Referee: Alexandre Ruiz [FFR].

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