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Ulster's desire still burns bright

Big win can now spark a PRO12 charge

By Michael Sadlier

So, after a horrible defeat we get this, the ideal response through a marvellously stirring and heroic effort to remind us all that this side can still turn it on when it really matters.

And mattered it did. Of course the sceptics will argue that this result is meaningless in that Ulster's interest in Europe had already been ended, but this was more than a mere face-saving exercise to avoid finishing bottom of Pool Three.

This was a performance that just had to be delivered - and with it came a second successive try bonus - to send out the message that this Ulster side are not cowed after their troubles of late while, hopefully, still possessing the hunger and desire for a drive to secure a PRO12 play-off.

The players also knew that they owed a display to Neil Doak and the supporters. And they also owed it to themselves, to come out and leave nothing behind in terms of effort and precision to send the Tigers home from a fourth European defeat from the same number of visits to Belfast.

And they played as if their lives depended on the outcome. This was exemplified in the sheer cussedness of their defensive effort when under the cosh in the second half.

For several minutes, Ulster were down to 13 men, with Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst in the bin, and still refused to yield when it seemed that the Tigers - now trailing 26-7 - just had to score.

That took a steely determination which came from deep within and not just robotic adherence to defensive drills. Indeed, it was notable that the English side ultimately sought their only refuge from kicking the ball away.

With 14 players back for the last 10 minutes you just knew they would hold out. And the tackles flew with Ulster making a bone-shuddering 167 to Leicester's 79 and Roger Wilson leading the way with 18 hits.

The Tigers had no means of getting near the bonus point win they were chasing thanks to Ulster's visceral commitment to the tackle in the wake of their dream first 45 minutes which saw Darren Cave bag his first ever hat-trick and Craig Gilroy deliver the bonus score to take Ulster into a secure looking 26-0 lead.

Cave's wonderful trio all came about from the team's desire to hit the spaces with precise execution, while Gilroy's was created from the platform provided by Ulster's mostly solid scrummage.

The most striking of Cave's scores was the second and the genesis for this came from the speed in which Ulster turned defence into attack. A long hoof downfield saw the Tigers lose possession at a ruck and Wilson was on it to send Alan O'Connor barrelling forward into the Leicester 22.

Ulster recycled a couple of times before Ian Humphreys - who had already been the supplier for Cave's first score after 19 minutes - spotted a mismatch with Tigers' second row Graham Kitchener in front of him and took him on his outside before throwing a pass against the grain and back inside to hit Cave who ran through to dot down.

With half-time just two minutes away this was a killer blow in what had already been a game where both sides had shown they were up for attacking rugby; Leicester because they had to pursue a try bonus and Ulster simply because they wanted to match their visitors' stated ambitions.

And with Cave's hat-trick arriving three minutes after the restart, followed two minutes later by the excellent Gilroy's strike - with two superb conversions following from Ruan Pienaar - the Tigers knew the game was up.

Another who stood out was the returning Iain Henderson who put together a pretty big shift for his first 58 minutes of rugby this season while skipper Rory Best - lineout issues aside - was an immense presence along with Franco van der Merwe.

A moment that effectively summed it all up arrived in the 68th minute when an attempt at a driving maul from the Tigers was shunted sideways and backwards and Freddie Burns just decided to put the ball skywards.

So, close to a complete performance from Ulster? Yes, this was arguably a display of dominance and desire not seen since the routing of Glasgow in the PRO12 back in October. But it now must be replicated over the tricky Six Nations period, though there will hopefully be sightings of Nick Williams and Andrew Trimble next month.

It's just a shame that they don't play again until February 13 which is, for those of a superstitious nature, a Friday.

Dig this deep again and the date will hardly matter even to those who fear it.

Belfast Telegraph

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