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Five things we learned as Henderson and Baloucoune star in Ulster's Champions Cup win at Leicester

Iain Henderson and Andy Warwick celebrate Saturday's win over Leicester
Iain Henderson and Andy Warwick celebrate Saturday's win over Leicester
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

What a weekend for Ulster, picking up the win over the Tigers at Welford Road and making it into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time since 2014.

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It sets up a simply mammoth knockout game with Leinster in Dublin, which will be a phenomenal occasion on the final weekend in March.

However, what did we learn from the game at the weekend? Here, Adam McKendry takes a look at what we discovered from the win against Leicester...


1. Iain Henderson is a freak of nature

Ulster second row Iain Henderson

I mean this in the nicest way possible, and arguably it's something we didn't already know.

Returning FOUR WEEKS early from thumb surgery and slotting straight into the starting line-up for Saturday's game at Welford Road, for most players it could have been a game where they faded into the background and just got a few minutes under their belt. But that isn't Iain Henderson.

The rampaging lock was at the centre of everything Ulster did for the whole of his jaw-dropping 80 minute performance, actively looking for work on a regular basis, combining those quick feet with his brute upper body strength to great effect as well as making the third-most tackles on the Ulster side as they held on to the end for the victory.

Let's hope he makes just a swift a return from his latest injury...

2. Jordi Murphy is the openside Ulster have been missing

Ulster's Jordi Murphy carries the ball

With the retirement of Chris Henry earlier this season, Ulster seemingly went into the new campaign without a recognised No.7 in their ranks. Between them, Marcell Coetzee, Sean Reidy and Nick Timoney have a breakdown presence, but individually it isn't where their strengths lie.

Enter Jordi Murphy.

He picks his moments perfectly, as highlighted in those key late turnovers against both Racing 92 and then Leicester at the weekend, and is hard to shift when he gets in on the ball. Most importantly, he seems to be flourishing with a run of games, something that he wasn't getting enough of at Leinster, and so far Ulster are reaping the rewards of that.

With Sean Reidy the tireless workhorse at blindside and Coetzee the bludgeoning ball carrier at the back of the scrum alongside Murphy, there's now a balance to that back row that Ulster haven't quite had before.

3. Robert Baloucoune could be the next great winger off the production line

Ulster winger Robert Baloucoune celebrates with fans

Jacob Stockdale has 26 tries in 51 games, meaning he scores a try every 1.96 games.

Robert Baloucoune has three tries in six games, a strike rate of a try every two games.

Not too dissimilar, right? And one of those players is being rightfully touted as one of the best wingers in world rugby right now.

After a relatively slow start to his senior career which saw him not score in his first three outings, and then a brief time on the sidelines through suspension, Baloucoune has very much hit his straps in the Ulster senior squad, seemingly nailing down that spot on the wing opposite Stockdale and finally finding his scoring touch too by crossing the whitewash in each of his last three games.

He has pace to burn, a quick step that we haven't seen fully utilised yet, and for a young man is very reliable defensively too, which is something that will make him a favourite with both Dan McFarland and Jared Payne. While he'll get all the plaudits for his game-winning try, Baloucoune's try-saving tackle on Greg Bateman just a few minutes later was just as important.

Now he's found his feet, the sky's the limit for the impressive youngster.

4. Ulster have found a way to win

John Cooney celebrates at the final whistle

At half-time there was an agreed consensus at Welford Road between the assembled press in the media box - we weren't sure how Ulster were going to win the game.

40 minutes later and boy had we been proved wrong.

Was it perfect? Not in the slightest. Ulster were comfortably second best in the first half and then proceeded to fall further behind at the start of the second half, unable to put more than a handful of phases together before coughing up the ball. Had Leicester been in any way clinical then the game could have been out of sight by the half hour mark.

Instead, Ulster hung on for dear life, and when they got a sniff of an opportunity in a dominant spell around the hour mark, they took it. Marty Moore scrambled over from a maul and then Billy Burns dropped a perfect chip kick over the top into the arms of Baloucoune and he scampered under the posts. From nowhere, Ulster had produced a brilliant comeback to hold the lead for the first time.

That mental strength to hold on for the win will serve them so well down the line. It's one thing having a team capable of winning, it's another to have a team that has the capability to get the job done even when they're up against it. For 50 minutes, Ulster looked like they didn't know how to overcome the Tigers, and yet at the full-time whistle they were one-point winners.

Winning doesn't have to be perfect, you just have to do it. And finally it seems Ulster know how.

5. That quarter-final is going to be bouncing

Ulster's Alan O'Connor and Greg Jones get to grips with Leinster's Max Deegan and Conor O'Brien

Not too many are giving Ulster a chance against the superstar squad that is Leinster, but that doesn't mean it can't be a great day out at the Aviva Stadium (should the game, as we very strongly expect, be moved there).

Ulster have already indicated they'll take their full away ticket allocation for the game - again, not a surprise in the slightest - and should there be any available beyond the first 24 hours they go on public sale then I will be shocked. If the Ulster fans were in good enough voice to out-sing Welford Road on Saturday then they'll travel in enough number to make themselves heard in Dublin.

It'll be a hugely tough task for Ulster, of course. The last time these two sides met in Europe was that fateful day at Twickenham, and back then Ulster had a better squad than they do now and still had no answer to the might of their southern cousins. This will be a completely different game, but it will need a mammoth effort for Ulster to come out on top.

Still, the fans can but hope - remember Thomond Park? Last ones out turn the lights off, okay?

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