Ulster are off to a winning start in the Heineken Cup having opened their 2013-14 account with a hard-earned victory over Leicester Tigers at a packed Ravenhill.
Having turned round leading 13-10 they took control in an outstanding second half during which they outscored the Aviva Premiership champions 9-3.
Paddy Jackson – hero of Ulster's win against Ospreys a week earlier in Swansea – shone again. He got 18 at Liberty Stadium; last night he bagged 17, landing six out of seven pots at the posts. Tommy Bowe brilliantly took the sole Ulster try which proved the launching pad for victory after Tigers had forced an early lead.
Ulster's start was error-strewn with a line-out infringement followed by one in the scrum. And they paid a heavy price for the second of those misdemeanours, with Tigers using the resultant penalty to launch a several-phases attack in which skipper Toby Flood ghosted past Darren Cave and, from the recycle, loose-head prop Logovii Mulipola popped up wide right to touch down.
Flood converted superbly and Ulster were seven points down with many minutes played.
Ulster desperately needed a lift. On 15 minutes they got it, courtesy of Jackson, who first kicked a penalty to within five metres of the Leicester chalk to set up an attacking line-out. Captain Johann Muller won it at the front and after a couple of forward rumbles, scrum-half Paul Marshall fed Jackson again.
With Jared Payne and Bowe signalling their availability the young out-half looked left before hoisting a perfectly flighted cross-kick. Up went Bowe to win the ball ahead of Niall Morris before grounding it for a try to which Jackson added a great conversion, tying the scores at 7-7.
But Leicester regained the lead with Flood applying the punishment when home No 8 Nick Williams was penalised for coming in from the side.
The Ulster mistakes continued, making it impossible for them to build phases. Route-one Tigers continued to press and at moments the hosts were hanging on. Their defence, however, was outstanding.
And in the latter stages of the first half, Ulster came good. A surge by the impressive Rory Best gave them impetus and when Leicester infringed a metre outside their 22, Jackson kicked the penalty.
The fly-half then delightfully plucked a long, well-struck Morris clearance out of the air and launched a counter-attaended with a scrum-time penalty against Roger Wilson on a Tigers put-in under their own posts.
Undaunted, Ulster came again and from a scrum on half-way, Paul Marshall made a stunning break before finding Bowe with a delightful behind-the-back pass. Leicester were on the ropes and wobbling and when French referee Romain Poite awarded another penalty against them, Jackson nailed his third off-the-tee kick to end an absorbing first-half.
The start to the second half was no less dramatic, with Ulster sloppy at from the restart before seemingly not only escaping but scoring a remarkable try for good maesure. Jackson was the man involved, intercepting a pass following a Tigers scrum and running more than threequarters the length of the pitch to score.
The cheers turned to moans, though, with referee Poite bringing them all the way back for a penalty for offside against Jackson. Flood put that between the posts and instead of being 18-10 ahead Ulster were reeled back in to parity at 13-13.
Minutes later Cave raced in following a rapid break down the left flank, but yet again Monsieur Poite ruled it out for a forward pass following consultation with TMO Bernard Dal Maso.
But Ulster were rampant and Ruan Pienaar's introduction from the bench as a replacement for Paul Marshall sent the decibel count soaring.
And it rose higher when the Tigers were penalised in a scrum, giving hitherto perfect Jackson a chance to restore the lead. It proved beyond him on that occasion, alas.
At that, Williams exited, with Iain Henderson deputising. Man of the Match Wilson went to No 8, with the newcomer packing down at six. And with Stuart Olding on for Luke Marshall, too, and it was all Ulster. Wave after wave, phase after phase.
Tigers' No 8 Jordan Crane was sinbinned for tripping Pienaar in the midst of the mounting pressure and Jackson put his miss of five minutes earlier behind him to make it 16-13.
Almost at once they gave Leicester a chance to equalise from the concession of a penalty, but survived without punishment when Flood's kick sailed wide of the left upright.
A 50-metres Pienaar slalom off a quickly taken line-out by Olding ended with Bowe knocking on a difficult pass on the 22. But Ulster scrummed magnificently, forcing Leicester to cough up a penalty on their own put-in. Up stepped Jackson to open up a six-point lead with 14 minutes remaining.
As his kick split the Memorial End posts, home captain Johann Muller bowed out. Enter Robbie Diack, with Henderson joining Dan Tuohy in the engine-room.
They set up camp in the guests' 22, their halves pulling the strings, with the relentless pressure yielding another penalty on 70 minutes. Up stepped Jackson – 22-13, with Leicester outside bonus point territory.
The Tigers were desperate to leave with something, and a drop-goal attempt by Owen Williams – a replacement for Flood – came back off an upright. But following that he promptly nailed a penalty awarded against Best to grab a bonus which may yet prove vital come January.
Next up Montpellier in France this night week.
Ulster – J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall (S Olding 52), T Bowe (M Allen 73); P Jackson, P Marshall (R Pienaar 47); T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick (R Lutton 77); J Muller (R Diack 66), D Tuohy; R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams (I Henderson 57).
Leicester Tigers – N Morris; M Benjamin (T Hepetema 75), V Goneva, D Bowden, A Thompstone; T Flood (O Williams 72), B Youngs; L Mulipola, T Youngs (D Mele 65), D Cole; L Deacon (G Kitchener 60), G Parling; E Slater, J Salvi, J Crane.
Ref – R Poite (France).