Glasgow Warriors 19 Ulster 22: Ruan Pienaar was the toast of Ulster once more last night, yet again delivering victory when it seemed impossible.
For the third time in four matches a last-minute kick by the Springbok gave Ulster a crucial win to keep their play-off spot hopes very much alive.
With the restoration of international trio Tom Court, Paddy Wallace and Simon Danielli in the starting line-up in the wake of the Six Nations campaign — plus the availability of Ireland’s Rory Best off the bench if or when required — Ulster travelled in good heart to face second-from-bottom opponents whose record was a draw, one win and five defeats in their previous seven Magners League outings.
The opening exchanges made a nonsense of all of that, however.
Ulster made a poor start, conceding three penalties in the opening eight minutes, with skipper Johann Muller, Declan Fitzpatrick and Pedrie Wannenburg the guilty parties.
The third of those offences offered Scotland’s Ruaridh Jackson a straightforward opportunity which he gratefully accepted.
Trailing 3-0, Ulster earned a brace of penalties. Pienaar missed the first of those from wide right, but two minutes later — from a little further infield — he got it right to leave it 3-3 after 13 minutes.
But Ulster continued to struggle, with Glasgow forcing turn-overs and further mistakes.
Ulster were lucky to avoid conceding a 23rd minute try when home loose-head Jon Welsh threaded through a clever grubber close to the Ulster line only to see it clip the corner flag before DTH van der Merwe could get hands to it. Two minutes later Welsh conceded a penalty for taking a scrum down. Pienaar’s second penalty success of the night took his points since joining Ulster through the 100 barrier.
Glasgow deserved better than to be trailing 6-3 and that became 9-3 in the final act of the first half when Pienaar nailed a kick from two metres inside his own half.
On the resumption Ulster were promptly under pressure again, escaping luckily when Jackson fluffed two further penalties in the 43rd and 45th minutes.
It was last-gasp defence, too, when Jackson squirmed away close to the Ulster line before feeding Moray Low who in turn passed to Federico Aramburu who spilled the ball when Tom Court floored him with a tackle.
But finally Jackson was on target from straight in front when Ulster were penalised for pulling down a scrum. Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin withdrew Fitzpatrick and Andi Kyriacou, introducing Paddy McAllister and Best to the front row, with Court moving across from loose to tight head.
But the mistakes continued. Craig Gilroy managed to get a ball back to Wallace but the Irish centre knocked it on under pressure.
At the end of the third quarter Ulster were dealt a bodyblow when an attempted box-kick by Paul Marshall was charged down. Replacement lock Ryan Grant was the man to apply the finish and when Jackson converted that made it 13-9. Pienaar missed a 61st minute penalty and two minutes later Best was yellow-carded for an offence when a Glasgow player was tackled short of the Ulster line. Jackson kicked the penalty.
Three minutes after Best’s exit, Pienaar miscued for the third time in six attempts before reviving 14-man Ulster’s hopes by diving through to get sufficient of the ball onto the goal line to see the try awarded by TMO Ian Ramage. Pienaar converted his own score to level things at 16-16.
Nor was he finished. In the 76th minute he landed a gem of a penalty to give his side the lead again, but with two minutes remaining they conceded another and Duncan Weir made them pay.
At 19-19 and little time remaining, victory seemed impossible. But then the Scots conceded a penalty, plus — vitally — a further 10 metres for backchat and that brought it just within Pienaar’s range. Out of jail again; somebody somewhere is smiling on this team.
Leaders Munster edged a compelling Magners League encounter at Cardiff City Stadium, denting the hosts’ play-off hopes with a 16-15 victory.
Leigh Halfpenny kicked four penalties and replacement fly-half Dan Parks a drop goal for Cardiff but a James Coughlan try, Ronan O'Gara's kicking and Paul O'Connell's leadership saw Munster home.