Belfast Telegraph

Now Ulster can believe

By Michael Sadlier

At the end, they somehow found the energy to gather in a huddle, out on the pitch, and Johann Muller knelt down at the edge of the circle to deliver some well-chosen words.

It looked like one of those important moments, an opportunity to tighten the group even further after clearing yet another significant hurdle in their journey.

Moments before, they had been out on their feet with Chris Henry's blood-spattered face telling of the monumental effort which had, in turn, brought them the ultimate reward of that much sought after home quarter-final.

And how Henry had delivered with the official post-match stats showing he had made a gut-busting 23 tackles.

It was emblematic of this, well, truly sensational result when Ulster had to tap into a deep seam of willpower to turn this around, with Nick Williams doing much damage again while he was on the field and so much graft also coming from Muller, Rory Best, Roger Wilson, Luke Marshall and John Afoa.

Naturally, Ruan Pienaar took the plaudits for his astonishing efforts, but so much toil and sweat was expended elsewhere that it is only right to laud the work of others in this incredibly stirring result as Ulster cussedly clawed it all back.

And even with the Tigers' form and injury issues on the night, this was still a thing magnificent to behold.

Let's face it, Ulster were gone at 19-9 and when just after Niall Morris had profited from Toby Flood's exquisite chip in the 49th minute – and Flood had then added a magnificent conversion – Ulster had then launched a 19-phase attack to no return despite the magnificent efforts of Afoa, Dan Tuohy, Luke Marshall and a virtually spent Williams.

At that point it looked like game over but then, in the space of four minutes, Ulster somehow hoovered up 10 points to tie the scores.

Yes, man of the match Pienaar was the man, following up his 57th minute penalty by then managing to chargedown Flood's attempted clearance a minute or so later before landing the touchline conversion to tie the scores.

It was sloppy work from the Tigers, who were under no real pressure, and, yes, Ulster certainly got the luck of the bounce, but so be it.

Morris's try apart, the second 40 minutes were mostly about Ulster imposing their aggressively accurate defending.

Best was again a force of nature in this area with 14 listed hits, and superior tactical nous on a Tigers team that probably thought that their European home record – intact since 2006 – was still safe.

Maybe Ulster's first half frailties – in fairness, the less than assured Jared Payne's tackle on Graham Kitchener was probably a game-saving moment – had lulled Leicester into thinking that they could profit, even by having Vereniki Goneva leading an isolated existence out on the wing while hoping that the newly returned Anthony Allen could provide that spark if Flood simply didn't hoof the ball in the air.

Their scrum had also caused some early problems and allowed Flood kick some penalties but all that changed in the second half – Jordan Crane and Kitchener departing early certainly weakened them –while their attempts to hurt Ulster with some lineout mauls failed in an area where it was the visitors who were dynamic.

The Tigers also didn't possess the potency that was available off the visiting bench.

What Robbie Diack, Iain Henderson and Tom Court brought to the game from just before, and in Henderson's case just after, the hour was an energy and dynamism simply not available to the home side.

It gave Mark Anscombe's side that little bit extra at a key time and then, when Pienaar nailed his fifth penalty – and this the second from inside his own half in his return of six from six – you sensed that the force was now with Ulster.

And so it proved. First they resisted a late Tigers attempt at a maul near the Ulster line and then had to defend a scrum well within their own territory after Luke Marshall kicked over the corner flag. We needn't have worried as Leicester were simply shunted off the ball and a penalty was secured.

Even then, though, the Tigers had one more attack but with the clock in the red zone, Ulster resisted.

Yes, they looked shattered as they gathered around Muller, after that last frantic play, but they also looked like a side which now believes that anything is possible. And with Ruan around, it can be done.

So, bring on Saracens and let's see where we go from there with another 'home' game beckoning for a semi-final against the winner of Clermont and those Tigers.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph