Belfast Telegraph

Stockdale and Piutau light up the Kingspan in Euro opener

 

By Jonathan Bradley

In a competition where Ulster have found themselves behind the eight ball all too often in recent seasons, the province bucked a three-year trend and opened their Champions Cup campaign with a win against Wasps at Kingspan Stadium.

This competition has offered increased margin for error since its 2014 realignment, but with a tricky trip to La Rochelle to come next Sunday, this opening salvo had the feel of a must win and Les Kiss's men duly delivered.

There were times in the 19-9 victory that it felt like we had seen this script before though, so closely did it resemble last weekend's win over Connacht.

Just like seven days ago, the hosts endured a frustrating first-half in terms of transforming pressure into points before heading for the sheds in arrears at half-time.

So too were there no prizes for guessing their eventual match-winners when they sparked into life shortly after the turn.

Having combined to such brilliant effect in the gritty inter-pro, Jacob Stockdale and Charles Piutau were at it again, working a try for the former in the corner to bring the stadium to life before nudging their side ahead for good by creating the opening for Stuart McCloskey's all important score.

When Christian Leali'ifano kicked a pair of late penalties, Wasps were denied even the consolation of a losing bonus point.

The visitors, beaten finalists in the Aviva Premiership just five months ago, arrived with a lengthy injury list and complaints over a short turnaround, but the game began with, if not real quality, then at least real parity.

With the hosts having surrendered scrum penalties at a dangerous rate in recent weeks, their first attempt on their own put in held up to scrutiny but it was another matter when Wasps were in possession.

There were only three minutes on the clock when Wasps' pack forced the first whistle from Ben Whitehouse, the lengthy left boot of Lion Elliot Daly whose effort from just over the halfway line would have sailed over from 10 metres further back.

In foul weather that would later ease, both sides opted to test the opposing back-threes with speculative boots skywards, former Leinster out-half Jimmy Gopperth almost finding Daly in a move Ulster would have struggled to track.

A lost line-out and a pair of knock-ons halted Ulster's early attacks, and when John Cooney attempted to restore parity with a long kick of his own, the strike sailed right of the posts.

Still enjoying the edge in terms of territory, Stockdale almost added another memorable score to his growing collection when put clear by Leal'ifano's no-look pass, but Wasps scrambled back well.

A Cooney penalty at least ensured the trip to the opposing 22 resulted in three points.

The scrum-half gave his side a scare when he popped up with a shoulder issue but, even with Wasps targeting his channel, managed to make his tackles until he regained his composure.

A first half in which neither side could seize control was encapsulated by a passage in which Ulster showed excellent maul defence to keep their visitors at bay, knocked on from the subsequent scrum, forced a penalty out of Wasps on their own put in and then finally lost the lineout.

Another fleet-footed break from Piutau, combining with halfbacks Leal'ifano and Cooney had Wasps backtracking again, but it was Dai Young's men who came closest to breaking the deadlock.

Wing Josh Bassett, a threat down Ulster's right wing, found plenty of space to kick ahead and, with opposite number Dan Robson breathing down his neck, Cooney was forced to carry the ball over the line and give Wasps a five-metre scrum.

While the defence repelled the attack, an offside penalty gave the opportunity for a kick to the corner, but again the maul was halted after good work by Henderson.

With both teams giving the distinct impression of being unable to get out of their own way, Daly was a relieved man when Leal'ifano inexplicably fielded his kick sailing out on the full and took a quick line out to cost his side some 50 metres.

The half would end almost as it started though, with Wasps knocking over a penalty hard earned at an Ulster scrum.

The second-half began in a similar fashion, this time McCloksey penalised for going off his feet with Gopperth nudging his side into a six-point advantage with a little over half an hour remaining.

It was at a similar stage in proceedings a week prior that Ulster were roused into action and so it proved again, even with a try chalked off.

Leali'ifano thought he'd marked his European debut with a score, only for Ben Whitehouse and TMO to spot a knock on, but Ulster had lifted their performance to a tempo that would be more than enough to seal the win.

Indeed, when the match-winning scores arrived, the combo providing them was again no surprise.

Just as they had last time around, Stockdale and Piutau were the ones doing the damage.

Attacking off a scrum, Leali'ifano found Piutau and allowed the former All Black to show all the quality that will soon see him become the highest paid player in the world.

While the simple option would have been to draw Christian Wade and leave his young cohort to take his chances with Willie Le Roux.

Instead he beat Wade for pace on the outside, freezing the Springbok Le Roux and giving Stockdale a run for the line.

If the try scorer is the coming man at Kingspan Stadium, there can be no denying how much Ulster will miss Piutau's moments of sheer quality come next season.

Cooney's missed conversion from the testing sideline position kept Ulster behind, but they would have to wait less than two minutes to put that right.

Le Roux sent an aerial bomb in Piutau's direction but his team-mates didn't chase and, when the pair went for the same ball, the South African could only palm backwards.

Stockdale was on it in a flash, breaking through James Haskell, and with Piutau on his shoulder. A quick exchange saw the ball flung for McCloskey to claim and force his way over.

The late penalties served only to ensure Wasps night would be wholly fruitless.

Ulster: C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst; K Treadwell, I Henderson (c), R Diack, S Reidy, J Deysel

Replacements: J Andrew, C Black, R Ah You (for Herbst, 64), M Rea, C Ross (for Deysel, 64), P Marshall (for Cooney, 64), P Nelson, T Bowe (for L Marshall, 68)

Wasps: W Le Roux; C Wade, E Daly, B Macken, J Bassett; J Gopperth, D Robson; M Mullan, T Cruse, J Cooper-Woolley; J Launchbury (c), W Rowlands; J Haskell, T Young (for Willis, 40), N Hughes

Replacements: A Johnson (for Cruse, 14), S McIntyre (for Mullan, 64), M Moore (for Cooper-Wooley, 67), J Gaskell (for Rowlands, 61), J Willis, J Simpson, R Miller (for Macken, 17), M Watson

Referee: B Whitehouse (Wales)

Man of the Match: Jacob Stockdale

Ulster19

Wasps9

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