Ulster's troubled campaign finally has silver lining
Edinburgh 20-32 Ulster
In a season many felt they couldn't wait to see end, Ulster breathed new life into their campaign with a surprise bonus-point win over Edinburgh in Murrayfield last night.
In the build-up to the game, the province's players had spoken of needing to produce their best with their backs against the wall and they did just that, beating a top six PRO14 side outside of Kingspan Stadium for a first time since September of 2016.
That it came with four tries, Iain Henderson following Darren Cave, Charles Piutau and John Cooney over the line, rendered it all the more impressive, cutting the gap to third-placed Edinburgh down to eight points and crucially extending their own buffer to Benetton to six points.
With a game in hand over their beaten opponents, Richard Cockerill's men can still be overhauled over the season's final three weeks to see Ulster claim an unexpected play-off berth, but staying ahead of the Italians is the only thing that will keep hopes of playing in next season's Champions Cup alive.
As such, this was a necessary win, but an encouraging one too. While the Irish trio of Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale and Henderson all showed what had been missed during the Six Nations window, the previously discarded Cave and Jean Deysel both impressed and the young guns, namely debutant Tom O'Toole, Matt Dalton and Matt Rea, all showed up too.
Despite starting well, they did however fall behind after their returning skipper Best, in Ulster colours for a first time since January, was pinged twice in quick succession by Nigel Owens in the opening 10 minutes.
Duncan Weir, who earned the win with a last-gasp drop goal when these two sides met back in February, punished the second indiscretion from the tee.
The response was swift, created by one of the province's departing stars. Piutau, the big-money full-back who will join Bristol this summer, has produced plenty of magical moments over his two years in an Ulster jersey and found another one on a ground where he once represented the All Blacks against Scotland.
It was his second offload of the evening that set Jacob Stockdale bursting into space and Cave, who himself is facing an uncertain future, ran a perfect trailing line to canter home one day after his 31st birthday.
With Owens quick to whistle at the breakdown, Edinburgh did reduce the gap with another penalty shortly after.
Ulster roles were reversed on the quarter mark when Cave created a score for Piutau. Excellent carrying from the backs from quick possession off a line-out had the restored centre running at Edinburgh with the ball in two hands to keep Blair Kinghorn guessing. Once he committed, the pass was shifted to Piutau and the Kiwi bagged his first PRO14 try since the opening night of the season.
And Ulster, yet to win an away game in 2018, were in dreamland soon after when their third score of the half came off a fantastic incisive run from Stockdale. Having been heavily involved throughout, the Six Nations Player of the Tournament burst through a gap and rewarded the run of Cooney with a scoring pass.
For all their good work in building a 19-6 lead, Ulster's advantage nearly evaporated thanks to Edinburgh's proficiency off turnover ball. First a Cooney pass intended for Stuart McCloskey was plucked from the air by the lurking Weir who was just able to beat Piutau in the race the line.
And they were nearly in again soon after when Matt Dalton was stripped in contact and Kinghorn scythed through the tackle of Best.
The livewire full-back was bearing down on Johnny McPhillips when he kicked ahead hoping to collect for the score only to get too much on the ball and see it bounce dead.
Despite those softer moments, and a struggling line-out making matters difficult as things wore on, Ulster were good value for the lead they took into the sheds at the half.
Indeed they would extend it out to two scores with the first points after the turn coming from a Cooney penalty but the game was soon to swing decidedly in Edinburgh's favour.
Oddly there hadn't been a single scrum in the first-half, a scenario that no doubt suited Ulster with one debutant and another youngster making his first start in the tight five. O'Toole had certainly looked plenty robust on the big stage as he motored around the park well but, at only 19, the set-pieces were always set to be a huge challenge.
When they came with frequency just before the hour mark, Edinburgh smelled blood in the water and a penalty try was somewhat inevitable. It would be the last involvement in the game for O'Toole, who was replaced by Rodney Ah You, but the former Campbell College pupil could be more than pleased with his first taste of action at this level.
With their lead down to just two, the threat of another Edinburgh sucker-punch loomed large but with the previously maligned Deysel to the fore, they held firm and gave themselves something of a buffer with another Cooney penalty. This time, at least, it would take more than a drop goal to break their hearts.
But instead, the late heroics came from Ulster to claim a try bonus.
Having controlled the final quarter well despite the odd scare, a strong McCloskey break had Ulster camped deep in Edinburgh territory. A scrum on the five metre line had the visiting forwards battering the line and, showing great desire, it was Henderson who drove his way across the whitewash.
Discounting the facile victory over the Kings, it was the perfect way to end what felt like the side's first step forward in months. While there is still plenty to do, play-off hopes aren't dead and fears over missing out on next season's Champions Cup are considerably eased.
EDINBURGH: B Kinghorn; D Fife, M Bennett, P Burleigh, D van der Merwe; D Weir, S Hidalgo-Clyne; J Lay, S McInally (capt), S Berghan; B Toolis, G Gilchrist; M Bradbury, J Ritchie, B Mata
REPLACEMENTS: N Cochrane (for McInally, 60), R Sutherland (for Lay, 55), WP Nel (for Berghan, 55), L Carmichael (for Toolis, 55), C du Preez (for Mata, 57), S Kennedy (for Hidalgo-Clyne, 60), J van der Walt, C Dean
ULSTER: C Piutau; L Ludik, D Cave, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Best (Capt), T O'Toole; M Dalton, I Henderson; M Rea, N Timoney, J Deysel.
REPLACEMENTS: R Herring (for Best, 74), T O'Hagan, R Ah You (for O'Toole, 60), A O'Connor (for Dalton, 46), S Reidy (for Timoney, 72), D Shanahan, A Curtis, T Bowe (for Ludik, 32)
Man of the Match: Iain Henderson
Referee: Nigel Owens