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Ulster's Champions Cup hopes suffer premature end as they finish on wrong side of thriller at Gloucester


Gloucester's George Barton scores a dramatic late winner as Ulster players look on shell-shocked.

Gloucester's George Barton scores a dramatic late winner as Ulster players look on shell-shocked.


Gloucester's George Barton scores a dramatic late winner as Ulster players look on shell-shocked.

Eighty-four minutes, nine scores, four yellow cards, three penalty tries and two double-digit comebacks but the only number that mattered at the end of an eventful Heineken Champions Cup game at Kingsholm was zero - that figure representing Ulster's chances of a quarter-final spot after Gloucester's 38-34 win.

Coming into the game knowing only a win would do after last week's home defeat to Toulouse, Dan McFarland will wonder how such a reality came to pass, leading as they were by ten-points with seven minutes to go and then in possession of the ball when only a handful of seconds remained.

Yet having seemingly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, they turned the ball over and allowed Gloucester to bite back with the telling score through replacement out-half George Barton four minutes after the clock had gone red.

To that point John Cooney had looked to have hauled his side to another victory on English soil, creating one score and adding another to dig the visitors out of a 14-point deficit, but they would ultimately pay the price for living so dangerously throughout.

That the dramatic end-game played out after Ulster had coughed up a crucial penalty and were playing with 14 men was fitting, their discipline having been a real issue early and often.

Indeed it was after a penalty strewn opening that Louis Rees-Zammit had given Gloucester their first lead with only six minutes gone.

Attacking off scrappy ball, centre Chris Harris did well before his midfield partner Mark Atkinson threw a long, loopy ball out to Rees-Zammit on the left wing. Ulster will have known they needed to guard against the Welsh international's lightning pace but his finish in the corner showed his power instead, driving his way between the tackles of Matt Faddes and Sean Reidy.

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The tone was set for a wild encounter when Ulster struck back so quickly, Billy Burns surely wondering how he was afforded such space on his old stomping ground as he wandered over untouched underneath the posts.

A Lewis Ludlow line-out steal meant that quickfire linebreaks by Mike Lowry and Stuart McCloskey and ill-discipline was an ongoing issue for Ulster.

And with 15 minutes to go before they would pay a huge price. Lloyd Evans had already punished one transgression with a penalty to move his side into the lead when another resulted in a kick to the corner. After a pair of mauls were pulled down in quick succession, Ulster found themselves coughing up a penalty try and yellow cards for both Rob Herring and Alan O'Connor.

Down 17-7 and facing almost ten minutes with 13 men, McFarland's side looked to milk the clock and stay in touch but the returning carded duo somehow came back into a situation better than the one they had left with Cooney's penalty the only points of the period.

Indeed, it could have been even better for Ulster had the ball not fallen from the tee as the scrum-half lined up another attempt.

Such flirtation with disaster sparked no improved relationship with referee Alexandre Ruiz though.

With only a minute gone in the first-half, Jordi Murphy was pinged at a line-out on half-way and Ulster were made to pay the price for what was already their ninth penalty concession of the game when, from the subsequent line-out, Gloucester mauled their way over for a 14-point lead.

Ulster's own line-out was failing them but an offload from Cooney opened things up for Nick Timoney to send Mike Lowry over and bring the province back into it.

Things were all tied up just before the hour mark when Ruiz was under the posts for a second time in the game, Rees-Zammit sent to the bin and coughing up a penalty try for a deliberate knock-on when McCloskey's pass was to give James Hume a walk-in score.

Like their opponents, Gloucester did well to negotiate their numerical disadvantage but, with three minutes left on the yellow card, Jordi Murphy pressured Charlie Chapman into a poor box-kick with a penalty forced in the ensuing confusion.

With Matty Rea placing a finger on the ball to avoid any further malfunctions with the kicking tee, Cooney knocked the ball over comfortably to give his side their first lead of the game.

And the same man brought up the bonus-point only two minutes later when he pounced on a loose ball to burst home from inside his own half. That should have been that, Ulster heading home knowing that they had escaped with their quarter-final hopes at least alive if not well.

Even when Ethan McIlroy's European debut lasted in the region of 60 seconds before he surrendered a penalty try and shipped a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on, with Gloucester still trailing by three.

But then followed the telling sequence of events that somehow ended with a stretched Ulster sinking to their knees as their Champions Cup went up in smoke with half the pool stages remaining.

The inquest into how it transpired could well last beyond Christmas.

Keep up with the game in full right here on our live blog:

Belfast Telegraph