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Injury list piles on more misery after Ulster fall out of coveted play-off spots

Ulster 16 Edinburgh 17

Pitch battle: Ulster ace Stuart McCloskey on a charge
Pitch battle: Ulster ace Stuart McCloskey on a charge
Johnny McPhillips goes down injured
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

In a game they couldn't afford to lose, Ulster were seconds from victory against Edinburgh but will end the weekend outside of the PRO14 play-off spots for the first time this season after Duncan Weir's late heroics gave the Scottish side their first win in Belfast since 2009.

The hosts trailed for only two minutes in the game despite spending the entire second half on the back foot but managed to lose for the second time at Kingspan Stadium this season when Scottish international Weir, who had to be called back from Worcester Warriors to cover absences at No.10, knocked over a drop goal with the clock already red.

The result takes Edinburgh above Ulster by virtue of games won and the pressure is on the province to both get back into the play-off spots and indeed secure a place in next season's Champions Cup.

With the two sides set to meet again later this season, this time in Scotland, it is assuredly advantage Edinburgh in that race.

The win was nothing less than the visitors deserved from the contest with Weir likely the most relieved man in the stadium after he was inches away from being the villain.

His kick to touch moments before his late game-winner almost stayed in play but Tommy Bowe misjudged the flight of the ball to give Edinburgh the lineout.

And while the game still needed to be won from there, with Ulster exhausted after their defensive effort, there was an air of inevitability about the ending.

While it seemed a long time ago by the 80th minute, Ulster had actually started the game better but were undone once again by injuries, this time to Craig Gilroy and Johnny McPhillips that required a backline reshuffle. Jono Gibbes' men never looked as sure of themselves after losing their latest No.10.

The in-form Gilroy had to depart even earlier. The wing went on an early burst with just six minutes gone but it came at a cost for last week's hat-trick hero who was hobbled by a rib injury and replaced by David Busby for his first appearance of the season. After Charles Piutau and Rob Lyttle seven days prior, another back-three injury was the last thing Ulster needed.

Their strong start was at least rewarded before 10 minutes had elapsed when John Cooney went over and converted his own score after a nice interchange between Louis Ludik and Nick Timoney.

With McPhillips delighting in every opportunity to pin Edinburgh back into their own '22', Ulster controlled proceedings throughout the first quarter with little hint of the defensive effort that would be required from here on out.

There were some unsettling moments when an erratic bounce saw Edinburgh catch Ulster on the hop and force an isolated McPhillips into conceding a penalty for holding on but, when the visitors went for the corner, a move designed to send Fijian flanker Viliame Mata over saw him bundled into touch.

With the same man inches away from a score only for a combination of Timoney and Rob Herring to jar the ball loose in the act of grounding, Ulster were living dangerously.

And if Gilroy was one man Gibbes would have been loathe to see depart with injury, the sight of McPhillips following him down the tunnel will equally have been a head in hands moment, compounded by Edinburgh scoring while the last No.10 available was lying prone on the turf.

Taking advantage of the big gap left to the side of the ruck, scrum-half Sam Hidalgo Clyne had acres to run into and Jason Harries beat Bowe to the prodded kick through.

The conversion knotted the score but the injury to McPhillips, who left with his arm in a sling, will likely have further repercussions. With Christian Leali'ifano back in Australia and a move for Stephen Donald having collapsed, Ulster's out-half has been a problem position, with McPhillips' absence another tough pill to swallow.

In the immediate, it meant Cooney moving to No.10 and Jonny Stewart filling the void at scrum-half. Far from ideal, but Ulster at least could go in at half-time level thanks to an important turnover forced by Luke Marshall.

While the second half was all Edinburgh to start - indeed, the Scots were as dominant for the first 20 minutes after the turn as Ulster had been from the off - Richard Cockerill's men were plagued by inaccuracy and, despite seeing little ball, a pair of Cooney penalties had Ulster six ahead.

That would evaporate just after the hour mark when Ulster were undone by a relatively simple inside ball from Fraser McKenzie to engine room partner Lewis Carmichael, with the latter able to shrug off the tackle of Stewart en route to the line.

Surely much to the ire of Cockerill, replacement loosehead Rory Sutherland was caught for not rolling away only two minutes later and having had so little ball, Cooney's third penalty of the night somehow had them back ahead.

There was still an unbelievable amount of defensive work to be done, and Ulster were hugely thankful for two blasts of Nigel Owens' whistle, but in the end were unable to hold out. Weir would have the final say and, with four of their last six games away from home, Ulster have plenty of work to do to get back into the play-off spots.

Belfast Telegraph


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