Ulster's Euro dream is still going strong
Toulouse 23-25 Ulster
Ulster secured just their third ever win on French soil yesterday with a battling performance against four-time European champions Toulouse to keep their Champions Cup hopes alive and well.
Having dismantled the Top 14 outfit in Belfast a week prior, the nine points taken from the double-header has the province well placed to make a run at booking a quarter-final spot.
For the second week in succession both Luke Marshall and Andrew Trimble crossed for tries, Ruan Pienaar having grabbed the first, and Les Kiss's men held on for victory despite a last-minute effort from Louis Picamoles.
There were just three minutes gone when Ulster took the lead through the boot of Paddy Jackson. Gregory Lamboley infringed at the breakdown and the visiting fly-half was assured off the tee.
A rare early Ulster visit to the opposing '22' ended the afternoon of Craig Gilroy after just 12 minutes.
Ulster moved the ball from right to left but Franco van der Merwe's pass did Gilroy no favours and the wing was unceremoniously dumped into touch on his head with Rory Scholes taking his place.
Toulouse threatened when a Marshall high tackle on his opposite number Gael Fickou brought a penalty and a line-out in the corner but Robbie Diack did exceptionally well to disrupt the maul.
Eight minutes before the half, Ulster displayed real patience when efforts to barge their way over off a line-out were repelled and, with Pienaar gathering at the base of the ruck, Toulouse neglected to guard the fringes and the Springbok scrum-half gratefully stretched across the line.
Jackson converted but the out-half was soon to be involved in the half's most controversial moment.
As Toulouse threatened inside the Ulster '22', the number 10 reached for the ball and knocked on. A penalty and card seemed inevitable until Florian Fritz tackled Jackson well after the whistle had gone.
After consultation with his TMO, JP Doyle opted against reversing the call and, when Bezy bisected the uprights, Ulster's lead was cut to seven and they would negotiate the five minutes either side of the turn a man light.
Even with 14, they ran the ball from deep inside their own territory just before half-time for what would have been a memorable score by Rory Scholes only for the try to be correctly chalked off for a forward pass.
Ulster almost survived the sin-binning without further concession but with the second-half not long underway, Diack came in at the side and just as Jackson was ready to return, Bezy was again successful off the tee to cut the lead to just four.
When the restart sailed out on the full, the Ulster scrum impressed and Pienaar pressured Imanol Harinordoquy into a knock-on at the base.
It would prove a crucial moment as from the resulting scrum Marshall's delightful flat pass set midfield partner Stuart McCloskey racing through a hole. While the rampaging centre was stopped short, Ulster recycled well with van der Merwe putting Trimble away in the corner where the wing provided the necessary strong finish.
With their European season perilously close to crashing down around them, roused Toulouse for what seemed to be the first time over the two games and a 10-point burst in five minutes gave them their first lead. Gael Fickou's score was converted by Bezy and, when Andrew Warwick gave away an unnecessary penalty, the scrum-half put his side up 16-15.
The renaissance was brief however and when Thierry Dusautoir cynically slowed Ulster's ball after yet another McCloskey line break, Jackson restored the visitors' advantage.
A nervy final quarter ensued, with Kiss's defensive systems holding up to a more rigorous examination, but when Marshall scored with five minutes remaining the win looked to be all but secured.
There was still time for Toulouse to earn at least the consolation of a losing bonus point when Picamoles rumbled over but, despite claiming the restart just as the clock turned red, there would be no great escape with Diack and van der Merwe combining to force the turnover to finish the game.
Ulster: L Ludik, A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (c), W Herbst; A O'Connor, F van der Merwe; R Diack, S Reidy, R Wilson.
Replacements: R Herring (for Wilson, 63), A Warwick (for McCall, 75), R Lutton (for Herbst, 44), L Stevenson (for O'Connor, 78), N Williams (for Reidy, 43), P Marshall (for Pienaar, 77), I Humphreys, R Scholes (for Gilroy, 12).
Toulouse: A Palisson, S Kunatani, G Fickou, F Fritz, T Matanavou, J-M Doussain, S Bezy; C Baille, J Marchand, C Johnston, G Lamboley, Y Maestri, Y Camara, T Dusautoir (c), I Harinordoquy.
Replacements: C Tolofua, (for Marchand, 52) G Steenkamp (for Baille, 52), G Muller (for Johnston, 40), J Tekori (for Harinordoquy, 52), L Picamoles (for Dusautoir, 60), D Mele (for Bezy, 75), L McAllister (for Fickou, 52), C Poitrenaud (for Matanavou, 60)
Man of the match: Andrew Trimble