Resurgent Ulster show icy resolve to send a chill through their European rivals
Harlequins 5-17 Ulster
A snow-swept Twickenham Stoop could hardly have felt further away from May's Champions Cup final in Bilbao, but Ulster kept their European ambitions alive with a gritty win over a Harlequins side whose own quarter-final hopes are now firmly in the past.
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The 5-17 success, a first victory on English soil for almost four years, was a game won when Ulster adapted better to the wintery weather and where their supposedly less powerful pack was brilliantly led by stand-in captain Iain Henderson.
For all the efforts of the forward eight though, somewhat predictably, it was once again that man Jacob Stockdale who grabbed the headlines with his ninth score in nine starts this season proving a catalyst for victory.
Man-of-the-match John Cooney was another in good form, the scrum-half quickly getting to grips with a game that was always to be an arm wrestle once snow descended on London overnight, as well as kicking four penalties on a day when at times it would have been tough to pick out the posts against an increasingly white backdrop.
In a game that was billed as a sell-out, there were plenty of gaps in the stands as things kicked off underneath a fresh flurry, locals and travelling fans alike hit by travel disruption that saw Saracens and Clermont, due to be played only 15 miles north, fall victim to the weather.
Coming in, Harlequins had already lost both their games to date in this season's competition but, having had to battle their way to a place at Europe's top table, were not about to give up on a quarter-final spot in the face of long odds. It was the visitors, though, who made the first foray into the opposing '22' after Stockdale had done well and Tim Visser missed Craig Gilroy.
The pressure brought about a penalty when Quins were caught offside, Cooney providing the first points of the game with just six minutes on the clock.
Familiar failings would soon raise their head however, Charlie Matthews stealing an Ulster lineout that soon after gave Marcus Smith a chance to stroke a penalty to the edge of the '22'. A knock-on from Renaldo Bothma though, gave Ulster a chance to escape.
Slippery conditions were making handling something of an adventure, but Ulster put together a move of real quality to move from their try-line to the Harlequins 22, although Cooney was just prevented from poking a grubber through for Tommy Bowe.
A penalty in the build-up gave another chance for a line-out, this time Ulster setting up an effective maul that brought another blast of Pascal Gauzere's whistle. In worsening conditions, Cooney would push his effort across the posts but scrum-half was to the fore when Ulster scored their only try.
After both sides utilised a bit of kick-tennis to test the opposing back three's ability to field balls that, quite literally, came down with snow on them, Cooney gathered loose possession in midfield and broke forwards.
While hauled down short himself, a quick recycle saw Stockdale slip through in the corner.
Without the conversion, Ulster were eight to the good.
After Marcus Smith missed a penalty, the biggest home cheers of the first-half were reserved for the Quins groundsman who was left with the thankless task of trying to re-mark the sidelines and '22's with a somewhat battered broom while snow continued to fall.
Ulster had one more chance to push their lead before the turn from a 5 metre lineout but, after Nick Timoney had taken well at the tail, a knock-on halted their progress. The visitors again scrummaged well but Harlequins were still able to exit.
The hosts did start the second-half on the front foot but, having already lost Chris Robshaw to concussion, Danny Care was sent for an HIA only minutes after the restart. They were still camped on the Ulster line for over five minutes, eventually forcing their way over in the corner after a seemingly endless series of scrum finally concluded with Kyle Sinckler barging over after Smith did well.
The missed conversion maintained Ulster's three-point buffer, and their response looked set to be immediate when Stockdale scythed through the middle but, with numbers over, substitute Louis Ludik's pass to Piutau was fumbled.
With 20 minutes to go, and a line-out too shaky to trust, Ulster would settle for a penalty with Cooney doing the necessary in front of the posts where those Ulster fans whose journey hadn't been grounded in Belfast were congregating.
Harlequins were now a converted score away from the win they required.
Ulster were regaining control after their shaky opening to the half and eked out another penalty for Cooney to stretch the lead to nine points.
Having thrown away a winning position against Dragons last week, there were no chickens to be counted yet, and the bright Smith created another opening with a dash up the sideline.
But Ulster held firm and there was to be no collapse this time around, indeed Cooney's fourth penalty of the day would be the final score of the contest.
For a side who have struggled to convince on the road this season, this was arguably their finest away win since beating Glasgow last season.
A five-day turnaround before the rematch will ask questions of both squads, but with Harlequins now harbouring no hopes of progression, Ulster will expect to make it a clean sweep of this back-to-back when they return to Kingspan Stadium on Friday night.
Do that, this time with a bonus point for good measure, and even with Wasps and La Rochelle to come in January they will have given themselves a real chance of getting out of their pool for the first time since 2014.
HARLEQUINS: M Brown (capt); C Walker, A Alofa, J Roberts, T Visser; M Smith, D Care; J Marler, E Elia, K Sinckler; G Merrick, C Matthews; R Bothma, C Robshaw, M Luamanu.
Replacements: D Ward (for Elia, 79), L Boyce (for Boyce, 69), P Swainston, D Lamb (for Matthews, 79), A White (For Robshaw, 15), I Prior (for Care, 43), W Stanley, R Chisholm.
ULSTER: C Piutau; C Gilroy, T Bowe, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; C Black, R Herring, W Herbst; A O'Connor, K Treadwell, I Henderson (capt), S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick (for Black, 70), R Kane (for Herbst, 63), M Rea, C Henry (for Treadwell, 51), P Marshall, P Nelson, L Ludik (for Bowe, 47).
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France).
Man of the match: John Cooney (ULS)
Belfast Telegraph Digital