How Ulster fell flat in Champions Cup clash with Wasps when it mattered most
Wasps 26 Ulster 7
Pole position in pool one coming into the weekend counted for little by the time all was said and done last night as Ulster made a winter exit from Europe for the fourth season in a row.
The province began the game knowing that a win would see them into the last eight, and in the end any form of victory would have been enough to top the pool, but they were battered by Wasps who themselves saw their slim hopes of qualification extinguished despite taking five match points from the 26-7 win.
To say simply that Ulster were second best in Coventry would feel like doing a disservice to the gulf between two sides who adapted to poor conditions with radically different levels of success.
Periods of the game when Ulster weren't under pressure felt like a real rarity and, even as the rain teemed down onto an already soggy pitch, Wasps were still able to play with an incision that made it feel as if the next try was always an inevitability.
While Ulster did show doggedness in defence, especially in a first-half that finished only 14-7 despite they and the ball being virtual strangers, their error count ensured that a foothold could never be secured and what could have been a defining game of their season ended with both sides playing out time.
It seemed that whenever Ulster had even the slimmest of openings, a crucial error would undo any progress, while a re-jigged backline was given plenty to think about when a Danny Cipriani inspired Wasps attacked.
In what had been a drama-filled round six, Ulster had come in with the enviable status of having their destiny in their own hands.
While Munster's delayed kick-off muddied the waters somewhat, a win or draw would take them through, while a single bonus point in defeat would not be enough.
With Wasps needing a sizeable, and unlikely, favour from Harlequins out in La Rochelle in order to have any hope of making the quarter-finals, it was clear from the outset that their marginal progression prospects had made little dent in their will to win.
This was no game of ebb and flow, Wasps were on top from minute one, virtually, to minute 80.
There were only 12 minutes on the clock when the Premiership side opened the scoring, and it was a passage of play indicative of Ulster's afternoon.
They had been putting together what was a rare spell of retained possession in opposition territory when Rodney Ah You barrelled onto the ball and spilled it forward.
From the scrum, Wasps booted the ball clear and were immediately back on the front foot when Rory Best's line-out throw was pinched by James Gaskell, eventually leading to an Ulster offside.
Three mistakes in quick succession and the game had shifted from Wasps' 22 to Ulster's five-metre line. And they would pay the ultimate price for their transgressions when Guy Thompson was on the back of a rolling maul that never seemed likely to be halted before the whitewash.
It was a deserved lead but, having not been able to sustain any pressure, Ulster somehow found themselves back in things soon after.
Jacob Stockdale had already been lost to the game through a dead leg but they were handed a way to the line when Christian Wade inexplicably passed the ball straight to a waiting Louis Ludik.
The South African had Darren Cave in support and it was the centre who would put Sean Reidy away for the score to knot things at 7-7.
But Ulster could do little with the stroke of good fortune.
Wasps would carry a 14-7 lead into the break when Tom Cruse finished brilliantly in the corner - even if he'll have questions to answer from his front-row union colleagues for being out there in the first place- off a Cipriani dink and Ulster were forced into further reshuffle when Ludik joined Stockdale on the sidelines.
Still in the game despite Wasps' domination, there was no improvement after the turn.
Again sloppy in attack and careless at the set-piece, the opposition flankers, Jack Willis and Guy Thompson, were having a field day at the breakdown to account for a healthy dose of 19 forced turnovers.
Allowing too much space when Wasps racked up the phases, there were just six minutes gone in the second-half when Willie Le Roux scampered across the line and into the corner to leave Ulster as good as dead and buried.
Jake Cooper-Woolley's powerful effort was only salt in the wound, ensuring that even if Wasps would not qualify, they would still finish ahead of their opponents in the final standings.
Even with the game gone, the visitors could not tidy up in possession, with a Christian Leali'ifano knock-on and a Joe Launchbury line-out steal ending their best attacks.
For Kiss and Ulster, it was another unfortunate case of a Jekyll and Hyde act.
Having engendered such positivity with last week's stirring win over La Rochelle, yesterday they were as bad as they had been good the previous Saturday.
To be out of Europe in January after winning four games is unfortunate, to do so twice in three years doubly so.
But the lingering feeling here, having had their destiny in their own hands this weekend, will be that this team fell flat when it mattered most. Again.
With a gap having already opened between themselves and the Conference B pacesetters Leinster and Scarlets, an away quarter-final in the PRO14 seems the best can be expected domestically, and with Edinburgh breathing down their necks even that is not a given.
Whether such an outcome will be enough to stave off the change that an increasing number feel is required, remains another matter entirely.
WASPS: W le Roux, C Wade, J de Jongh, K Eastmond, M Watson, D Cipriani, D Robson; S McIntyre, T Cruse, J Cooper-Woolley; J Launchbury, J Gaskell; J Willis, G Thompson, N Carr.
Subs: A Johnson (for Cruse, 62), B Harris (for McIntyre, 61), M Moore (for Cooper-Woolley, 61), K Myall (for Gaskell, 54), T Young (for Willis, 54), J Simpson (for Robson, 61), R Miller (for Watson, 55), B Macken (for Eastmond, 66)
ULSTER: C Piutau, L Ludik, D Cave, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Leali'ifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Best, R Ah You; A O'Connor, K Treadwell; I Henderson, S Reidy, N Timoney.
Subs: R Herring (for Best, 55), A Warwick (for McCall,54), W Herbst (for Ah You, 50), M Rea (for Treadwell, 55), C Henry (for Timoney, 66), D Shanahan (for Leali'ifano, 72), J McPhillips (for Ludik, 32), R Lyttle (for Stockdale, 17)
Man of the match: Tom Cruse
Referee: Jerome Garces