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Comment: Ulster may be seeing light at end of a dark tunnel after crucial play-off win

 

By Michael Sadlier

Well, they did it. With their backs to the wall from a wrecking ball of a season buffeted by unprecedented turbulence, Ulster finished with a flourish.

It almost felt like things were nearly back to what they were before as they ran in four tries with Craig Gilroy so pumped after his brace, and the afternoon was never going to be complete without Jacob Stockale getting in on the act too.

So, Champions Cup rugby has not been lost - the implications of life in the Challenge Cup weren't really worth reflecting on - and the province have even managed to stay unbeaten for five games in this campaign's endgame thanks to four wins and a draw being racked up since March's humiliating defeat at Cardiff Blues.

Not a bad way to sign off really and the run - ending with the huge relief yesterday's play-off success - brought something of note for Jono Gibbes, who ended his time at Ulster after a week which saw his visit to La Rochelle, and links to a potential job vacancy there instead of back home in Waikato, gaining far more prominence than it merited.

If incoming coach Dan McFarland can bring the same hard edge then this Ulster side might be able to leave their annus horribilis firmly behind them and even hit the ground running with a fit Marcell Coetzee and new signings Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy on board.

Maybe we even had a flavour of how things were, and hopefully will be, with the cries of "Cooney, Cooney, Cooney …" ringing out around the ground in the same way that "Ruan, Ruan, Ruan…" was once the favourite chant.

In fairness, Cooney has been Ulster's only consistently uplifting presence during all the troubles of this campaign, not that this discounts the impact of Stockdale it's just that many of his notable heroics have been performed in the green shirt of Ireland.

Cooney was magnificent yesterday afternoon kicking six from eight shots at goal for a more than decent total of 15 points while his interception was also instrumental in helping set up Gilroy's second try just after half-time.

But Cooney, who ended his debut season here yesterday, was by no means a lone presence against the Ospreys.

Others stood up when it mattered and, yes, yesterday, really did matter.

In the heady celebrating at the end of the game, it didn't seem that many in crowd were intent on recalling that things hadn't looked good before the action started.

Having no Iain Henderson and Rory Best was bad enough, but that wasn't all as former Ulster assistant coach Allen Clarke racked up in Belfast with a top heavy Ospreys side determined to succeed.

A Sunday afternoon hadn't pulled in the punters either in the way that might have been hoped as Ulster attempted to stay in next season's Champions Cup.

But then minutes before the start, Charles Piutau was gone, along with prop Ross Kane, both pulling up in the warm-up.

So, no final farewell for Piutau ahead of his moneyed departure for Bristol, and after 20 minutes both Louis Ludik and Callum Black - on his way to Worcester - were also taken off with knocks.

With the Ospreys having taken an early lead, all looked set fair for Ulster to bow out this term by losing a knockout game and disappearing from dining at Europe's top table.

But the sceptics were routed. Gilroy - originally on the bench prior to Piutau breaking down -knows how to sniff out tries and there he was getting on the end of Luke Marshall's chip before doing likewise at the start of the second half after Johnny McPhillips put in a teasing kick for him to chase.

Yet there were others who performed arguably just as memorable heroics.

A massive moment arrived in the 56th minute when prop Andy Warwick tap-tackled Sam Cross just when the Osprey looked to be racing clear to score.

And that wasn't all as, moments later, a phalanx of white shirts put their bodies on the line at the corner flag to thwart another black-shirted surge for the try line.

This time, though, the outcome of stopping the score ended Marshall's game with the centre having to be carted off.

That level of commitment showed that this Ulster squad can potentially rise again from the ashes of this largely destructive season which has now, finally, ended.

Though the Ospreys did score their second try soon after Marshall left, Cooney then nailed two kicks to keep the Welsh too far back with time running out.

Then it was Stockdale's moment and the job was done.

Thankfully it all ended with no further humiliation and, hopefully, Ulster are, gradually, emerging from their year of darkness.

Belfast Telegraph

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