Ulster flex their muscles to boost last eight hopes... but old flaws still need addressed
When all was said and done on a night of thrills and spills at Kingspan Stadium, Ulster did the required in seeing off Harlequins with a bonus point and carried their European ambitions into the new year.
After the pair played out an arm-wrestle in the snow last weekend, the return leg was more true to form of two sides who this season have scored and conceded points in bagfuls.
In the end, Ulster crossed six times to Quins' four.
John Cooney led the way with 27 points and Les Kiss's men will watch a packed weekend of Champions Cup action hoping to see others do them a favour in their quest for a quarter-final return after three years away from the business end of the competition.
While La Rochelle, who meet Wasps tomorrow, remain firmly in control of Pool One, the northern province did all they could last night to maintain their ambitions of a best runners-up spot, even if it was far from as comfortable as the final margin would suggest.
Ulster began matters with plenty of possession, and their first visit to the opposing '22' came from a pacy Rob Herring burst onto Leali'ifano's pass but, with Quins flooding back, his pass couldn't but Craig Gilroy away. With Ulster maintaining the pressure though, an offside from the visitors was punished by the boot of Cooney.
With the freedom that comes from knowing their chances in this competition were already over, Marcus Smith tried an ambitious cross-kick from beneath his own posts and, although Alofa Alofa gathered, he was soon penalised for holding on after Leali'ifano and Chris Henry converged. Having kicked four from the tee on Sunday, Cooney was halfway to that total after less than 10 minutes.
With everything going to plan, Ulster were hit with a sucker punch. Patiently moving through the phases, they were undone when Charles Piutau's pass found only the gleeful arms of Namibian number 8 Renaldo Bothma. The burly back-rower didn't quite have the gas to complete the intercept try but, after Gilroy got back to make the tackle, a quick recycle allowed Smith to dance around Cooney in the corner.
The missed conversion at least meant Ulster maintained their lead, and a try of their own was soon forthcoming.
Leali'ifano's chip with the outside of his boot was delightful, and with Ross Chisholm all at sea, Stuart McCloskey capitalised as he booted through and slid over to finish just before the ball went dead.
With Cooney's conversion sailing over, Ulster hoped order was restored. Anything but.
The opposition could have been reduced to 14 men soon after, but Jamie Robert's deliberate knock-on was deemed only a penalty, and Quins enjoyed another let-off as Ulster lost another two line-outs on the edge of the 22.
With young tyro Smith bright, and Kyle Sinckler always a danger when allowed to build up a head of steam, Ulster could ill afford to be so wasteful.
The bludgeon of Jamie Roberts was another method used to pierce the Ulster rearguard but a try-saving tackle from Stockdale, assisted by McCloskey, held the Premiership side at bay. Just.
It was only to be a temporary reprieve though as, with missed tackles again rearing their ugly head, a series of clever moves against the grain allowed Charlie Walker to score untouched under the posts.
But Cooney did add one more penalty to give a buffer before the sides headed for the sheds.
In need of a quick-score after the turn, Ulster got just that when Gilroy wriggled his way over in the corner despite the attention of Alofa Alofa and, suddenly, the hosts seemed in a position to chase the much-needed bonus point.
There was evidently still a degree of trepidation, however, with Cooney kicking another penalty from just outside the '22' to move the side two converted scores ahead.
Firmly in control now, a free-kick off a scrum was taken quickly by Sean Reidy and a nice interchange between wings Gilroy and Stockdale allowed Cooney to find the trailing run of Piutau.
From only metres out, there was no stopping the All Black.
Harlequins, for whom high-scoring games are something of the norm, were immediate in their response, Chisholm taking advantage of more missed tackles to cross in the corner.
Any chance of a late comeback dissipated when Lions prop Sinckler needlessly body-checked Stockdale for a wholly avoidable yellow card. The indiscipline loomed large when, despite missing touch from their penalty, Ulster bagged the bonus.
While he may have been kept off the scoresheet - a rarity in itself during his short career - there was no stopping Stockdale from producing a moment of magic. With little seemingly on, the man of the moment seemed to glide through the Quins defence as he went from right to left. His eventual pass to Trimble couldn't open the door, but Alan O'Connor stretched over from the next phase to mark his 50th senior appearance with his second try.
As back-and-forth as a game of basketball, the game descended into a pattern expected a week ago before snow intervened. Harlequins got a bonus point of their own when Ulster didn't shore up the side of the ruck, allowing stand-in skipper and flanker Dave Ward to snipe around the edge and touch down.
To cap off a pair of wins that have re-invigorated their European campaign, it was left to Ulster to have the final say however with two late scores.
First John Cooney was put through after good work from Henderson, before substitute Andrew Trimble really put a cap on things in the last play of the game. Plenty of work to be done, but another step in the right direction.
Ulster: C Piutau; C Gilroy, L Ludik, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; C Black, R Herring, W Herbst; A O'Connor, K Treadwell, I Henderson (capt), C Henry, N Timoney. Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 52), A Warwick (for Black, 40), R Kane (for Herbst, 40), M Rea (for Treadwell, 67), S Reidy (for Timoney, 55), P Marshall (for Cooney, 75), P Nelson (for Stockdale, 65), A Trimble (for Piutau, 60)
Harlequins: R Chisholm; C Walker, W Stanley, J Roberts, A Alofa; M Smith, I Prior; L Boyce, E Elia, K Sinckler; G Merrick, C Matthews; A White, D Ward (capt), R Bothma. Replacements: C Piper (for Elia, 68), M Lambert (for Boyce, 59), P Swainston (for White, 66), M Luamanu (for Bothma, 55), D Lamb (for Merrick, 68), J Lang, T Visser, M Brown (for Smith, 76)
Referee: Alexandre Ruiz (France).