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Ulster leave it late as cool Cooney steps up to the plate again

Ulster 30 Edinburgh 29

By Jonathan Bradley

If we learnt anything about Ulster in the opening six days of the PRO14 season, they are not a side who mind coming from behind.

After John Cooney kicked them to an opening day win over Scarlets with some 30 seconds to spare a week ago, they left it even later last night with the same man once again providing the late heroics, this time with the clock some two minutes into the red.

His last kick of the game penalty was the dramatic conclusion of a nerve shredding denouement that saw the lead change hands three times in the final 10 minutes.

The province had clawed their way back from 23-6 down with less than half an hour remaining, taking their first lead of the night only when Craig Gilroy scored their third try in the 70th minute.

Ever so briefly Cooney seemed set to be the villain of the piece when he gave away a 79th minute penalty that visiting out-half Simon Hickie knocked over to seemingly give his side their second successive win in Belfast.

With just enough time to restart the game though, Ulster would fight back once more.

Again Ulster were imperfect, again they found a way to win. On a night when Edinburgh got the better of the breakdown, and were stout in defence for the most, Ulster utilised a three-try, 15-minute burst to set up Cooney's heroics.

In the opening minutes, it seemed their number nine wouldn't be around to see the 82nd minute. Only moments into the game he was left shaken up after a tackle but, thankfully for the nervous faithful, he rejoined the action quickly. In less welcome news, he did so just as Edinburgh took the lead, Hickie stroking over a penalty after Ulster had illegally sacked a maul.

An early bout of indiscipline put the hosts in an early hole, the referee's whistle halting one promising attack and allowing Hickie to double the lead all in the first 10 minutes.

Things got worse soon after when, with the freedom afforded by penalty advantage, Edinburgh capitalised on over-eager Ulster defence before scrum-half Henry Pyrgos floated an all-or-nothing skip pass just out of the reach of Gilroy and into the waiting arms of Tom Brown. The wing, making his first competitive outing since November 2017, finished gleefully.

A trio of penalties, two for Ulster and one for Edinburgh, provided the only further scoring in a half that saw neither side force openings with any degree of regularity, although Ulster were almost over in the corner only for debutant Jordi Murphy to be forced into touch as he grounded the ball.

Dan McFarland's side started the second half on the front foot but only five minutes in, Edinburgh delivered what felt like the hammer blow. With the next score seemingly crucial, the visitors took advantage of Ulster being temporarily down to 14 men. With Billy Burns down and getting treatment, organisation deserted the province as substitute James Johnstone was worked into space out wide and rounded under the posts to score.

Ulster did respond, their first try of the season coming through the again impressive Will Addison, but the Ulster coach's box will not have been a pleasant place to be when the side almost immediately gave three points straight back.

Hickie's sixth kick from six on the night gave his side a 13-point buffer.

Again, Addison brought his new side within touching distance, this time the summer signing from Sale showing great footwork to create enough space to send Cooney bursting between the uprights. Joe Schmidt has already had two looks at the new Ulster full-back in training camps and will have again been impressed with what he saw.

A crucial Rob Herring turnover on the hooker's return after seeing action for Ireland over the summer ensured Edinburgh would not this time strike back straight away.

And with 10 minutes remaining the comeback seemed complete, some broken field running from Henry Speight and a fine Cooney pass releasing Gilroy to run in from distance.

There was, though, still plenty of drama left in store.

With only a matter of seconds remaining, Cooney came offside defending an Edinburgh scrum 10 metres into his own half and another late show from the Scots seemed inevitable.

While it was Duncan Weir knocking over a last-gasp drop goal a year ago, this time Hickie stood up to be the hero, calmly knocking over the kick.

Crucially though, this time there was time enough for an Ulster restart which replacement lock Alan O'Connor rose to claim after Burns rushed to the halfway line.

Ulster stayed patient, ever deeper into time beyond the 80, and got their reward when Stuart Berry penalised Edinburgh at the breakdown.

Cooney wasn't about to pass up the opportunity. Ulster two from two, if only just.

Having played two of the conference's play-off sides in their first two games, the contrast next week could hardly be more stark.

Ulster depart for South Africa on Wednesday and will take on the lowly Kings in Nelson Mandela Stadium, their opponents still having only won one game in the competition ahead of taking on Dragons this afternoon.

Ulster Rugby: W Addison; C Gilroy, D Cave, S McCloskey, H Speight; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, R Kane; K Treadwell, I Henderson; M Coetzee, J Murphy, N Timoney.

Replacements: A McBurney, E O'Sullivan (for Warwick, 50), W Herbst (for Kane, 50), A O'Connor (for Treadwell,60), S Reidy (for Coetzee, 50), D Shanahan, A Curtis, A Kernohan

Edinburgh Rugby: B Kinghorn; D Fife, M Bennett, M Scott, T Brown; S Hickey, H Pyrgos; P Schoeman, S McInally, WP Nel; B Toolis, G Gilchrist; L Hamilton, J Ritchie, B Mata.

Replacements: R Ford (for McInally, 70), A Dell (for Schoeman, 66), M McCallum (for Nel, 55), F McKenzie (for Toolis, 57), L Crosbie (for Mata, 40), S Kennedy (for Pyrgos, 74), J van der Walt, J Johnstone. (for Bennett, 19)

Referee: S Berry

Man of the Match: Craig Gilroy (Ulster)

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