Belfast Telegraph

Sports Awards

Ulster's hard hitters deliver despite some familiar frailties


By Michael Sadlier

So, an occasion without snow and a bonus point surely being the target. What could go wrong against a Harlequins side with nothing to play for and diluted from Sunday?

Well although it was wobbly enough at times - Ulster conceded four tries and were breached with ease on rather too many occasions - they still did the job and crossing the Quins line six times keeps European qualification on the agenda.

And when it mattered most, Ulster's quality players rose to the occasion with John Cooney's 27 points - he missed just one kick from 10 attempts - being a clear highlight.

But Christian Leali'ifano's game management was also top drawer with Craig Gilroy looking really sharp and Jacob Stockdale also shining though, for a change, he didn't score a try.

Stuart McCloskey is also worth a mention for his all-round display.

And though there were signs of some familiar frailties, this win has allowed Ulster to put down a marker and not only keep plugging away behind La Rochelle but also put themselves in a place where a best runners-up slot might yet get them through.

But, we're getting ahead of ourselves. They needed a good start to fire everything up and Rob Herring's line off Leali'ifano offered the promise of much more to come.

And with only nine minutes gone Ulster led 9-0 and looked well set. They were punching holes with some close-in passing before spreading the ball with ambition which, of course, was risky and, sure enough, they got picked off.

Renaldo Bothma gobbled up Charles Piutau's pass and was away and though Gilroy hauled the number eight down, Quins recycled and the excellent Marcus Smith rounded Cooney to score.

Just what Ulster didn't want but, in fairness, they weren't for lying down.

This time, it was from putting boot to ball with Leali'ifano's chip over the top then being hoofed on by former footballer McCloskey who just made the touchdown before the ball went dead.

Cooney added a marvellous conversion from the touchline but, yet again, at 13-5 they couldn't push on.

To their credit, Ulster dug out another three-pointer from Cooney to hold a 16-12 half-time lead.

If ever they needed a good start to a half it was now and they got it. This time Gilroy did really well to make the corner from close-in, particularly after Stockdale had ignored him on his outside earlier on in the attack, and with Cooney slotting another superb conversion they were 11 points ahead.

And it kept getting better. That became 26-12 in the 50th minute with Cooney's fourth penalty and then five minutes later Piutau barged over for Ulster's third try which saw Cooney miss his first kick of the game.

Surely Ulster would now push on? But no, Alan O'Connor missed Ross Chisholm and the full-back was in.

Kyle Sinckler's yellow was a help as O'Connor got the bonus and though there was another Quins score, Ulster finished with a flourish from Cooney and Andrew Trimble.

What a night. Who knows what's next?

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