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Ulster survive dramatic late Sharks fightback to secure home quarter-final berth in URC play-offs

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Ulster centre James Hume is crowded out by Jaden Hendrikse, Curwin Bosch and Makazole Mapimpi of the Cell C Sharks (INPHO/Laszlo Geczo)

Ulster centre James Hume is crowded out by Jaden Hendrikse, Curwin Bosch and Makazole Mapimpi of the Cell C Sharks (INPHO/Laszlo Geczo)

©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Ulster centre James Hume is crowded out by Jaden Hendrikse, Curwin Bosch and Makazole Mapimpi of the Cell C Sharks (INPHO/Laszlo Geczo)

So that’s it done and a home quarter-final duly delivered.

Great, but just when Ulster were admiring their handiwork, we got that 14-point surge from the Sharks which imperilled all the home team’s good work with the clock essentially coming to the province's aid. That wasn't such a good look.

Thankfully, Dan McFarland’s men had done enough, going out to 17-0 and then 24-7 with great tries from Michael Lowry, the excellent Stuart McCloskey and James Hume.

But could they have been better in going after that fourth try? Well, yes, but the win was key and, leaving aside their late collapse, Ulster put in a decent enough shift with McCloskey, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Iain Henderson and Nick Timoney all delivering in big performances.

They also defended well, apart from the closing minutes, to further back up their work at Edinburgh and though there was a palpable sense of frustration at how Ulster finished the contest and how they failed to nail that fourth try, they elevated themselves to second in the table ahead of today’s key matches.

Now it’s wait and see what they get while the Sharks can only wonder at their profligacy when it mattered.

With so many permutations in play it was best to keep things as straightforward as possible, which essentially translated into simply winning this game and therefore getting over the line for a home quarter-final.

And the fact that both Ulster and the Sharks had this mindset ahead of the action kicking off ensured that this final regular season round had something of substance for whoever came out on top.

All to play for, then, in this the first meeting between the sides, with the South Africans bringing Springbok World Cup winners Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Bongi Mbonambi and Siya Kolisi all on board while Ulster, of course, had their own in Duane Vermeulen.

With the opening shower having abated, Ulster showed their intent to put the width on the ball from the off after Nick Timoney’s strong run only for Ethan McIlory’s pass to miss Robert Baloucoune and drift forward.

Then McIlroy brought the ball back into his 22 with Michael Lowry’s clearance into touch giving the Sharks some cheap field position, but Vermeulen struck to steal the ball on the deck from the subsequent attack as did Timoney – though he was rather fortunate to get the call from Ben Blain – shortly afterwards from the next South African attack.

Ulster kept up their attacking tempo through Stuart McCloskey which allowed Billy Burns put in a cross-kick to McIlroy, only for the winger to be nudged into touch near the corner flag.

The first clear scoring chance also fell to Ulster after Iain Henderson had wrapped up Jaden Hendrikse, the penalty in front of the sticks being dispatched by John Cooney after 16 minutes.

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Ulster then had another incursion into the 22 after Baloucoune was hit the air by Curwin Bosch and with momentum clearly with them they bagged another quickfire penalty and went to the corner.

Even though the move looked to have petered out, the ball was spun wide by Burns and McIlroy stepped inside and threw an inside ball to Lowry who got over. Cooney converted the 26th minute try and Ulster were 10 clear.

As the Sharks tried to respond with a strong surge into Ulster territory, the home side lost James Hume to an HIA and then shortly afterwards off went Lowry – who had been smashed by Werner Kok in the opening moments – after also taking a bang to the head.

McIlroy’s knock-on from sub Stewart Moore’s pass with acres of space in front of him and Baloucoune alongside looked ugly, particularly as the Sharks then had a shot at goal from long range though Bosch shot wide.

With half heading towards its end, the Sharks then threw everything into attack, with Am making ground, though their presence in Ulster’s 22 ended when Henco Venter was jackalled by Timoney and the home side survived to head to the sheds 10-0 up.

Ulster, with Hume having returned, started brightly with Burns making a clean break from a turnover and kicking dangerously to the Sharks’ line, though Aphelele Fassi got back first.

A minute later, though, Ulster had their second try with great hands from Iain Henderson and Tom O’Toole putting McCloskey in space and he simply skittled defenders, Fassi being one of them, to dot down under the sticks.

Cooney’s conversion made it 17-0 and then when the Sharks put a penalty to the corner from the restart, Henderson soared to take the ball and Ulster cleared.

Both the try and the Sharks’ failure to score looked to be hugely significant moments.

The Sharks then put together a multi-phase attack and won a penalty under Ulster’s posts which saw them opt for a scrum and then they did so again – Ulster now had both Gareth Milasinovich and Eric O’Sullivan on – and despite another surge, the home side held firm despite straying offside more than once during their defensive set.

But the Sharks came again and tapped another penalty close in before opting to do the same just after the hour with newly arrived sub Ntuthuko Mchunu being driven over.

Bosch converted and the South Africans had a window to chase the game, though it was closed almost immediately when Burns supplied Baloucoune out on the right, he drew and threw inside to Cooney who, in turn, waited for the final tackler before providing James Hume with the assist.

Cooney converted and took Ulster’s lead to 24-7 though with five minutes to go and, off lineout ball, Grant Williams broke and Marius Louw dived over. Boeta Chamberlain added the extras.

Williams then ran in from distance to score, Chamberlain’s conversion cutting the lead to just three points which is how it ended.

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