Ulster 22-29 Toulouse
Such is the nature of this strange season, Ulster’s European hopes are already hanging by a thread after only 80 minutes of rugby.
On a night when one of the real European heavyweights came to town, the hosts matched them blow for blow in a game that was a far cry from when these sides last met only three months ago.
Then it was clear who the superior outfit were. Here, in contrast, Toulouse landed the last blow and Ulster ran out of time to throw their counter.
That the back and forth encounter was quite so entertaining will be of no solace to Dan McFarland, his side’s first defeat in Belfast for over two years a bitter pill to swallow on a night when much of what they did went to plan only for them to find there is no way to plan for Cheslin Kolbe.
On another day, without the world class winger in such form, this could have been another famous Ravenhill win for after a quarter of an hour, things could hardly have been going any better. With the narrative surrounding this contest concerning whether Ulster’s PRO14 form could carry into the considerably larger challenge of European action, their maul had no problems with the transition.
Going down the line at the first opportunity, when Toulouse infringed again there was little doubt where the ball was headed.
And just in case any one was in doubt as to what skipper Carter would decide, hooker Rob Herring was standing on the sideline drying his hands long before the visitors had even given them the ball back.
With Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey adding their bulk at the back, the set-piece motored over the line at pace with Herring the man receiving the pats on the back once the dust settled.
If that felt a good start, great was to follow.
The only touch of the ball by a Toulouse player between Ulster’s first and second tries was to be the restart which sailed out of play to give Ulster the half-way scrum.
Making light of the conditions, what followed will have pleased any watching fans of the Cardiff Blues. The Welsh region announced this week that Ulster’s attack coach Dwayne Peel will be joining them at the end of this season and here was a strike-play that had his finger prints all over it.Marcell Coetzee played from the base and the interchange between Cooney, Madigan, Faddes, Hume and back to Madigan was brilliantly slick. While Cooney couldn’t add the extras from the sideline, from 0-0 to 12-0 in a matter of two minutes had Ulster fans sensing another memorable European scalp.
Bringing with them an array of the game’s biggest names, though, Toulouse’s superstars did what superstars do.
As the four-time winners attacked off scrappy ball Sofiane Guitoune did well to keep it alive off the deck but there are few players in the game who could go from that point to the try-line with such seeming ease as Cheslin Kolbe.
Having bagged himself a brace when these two last met, the Springbok World Cup winner was again a thorn in Ulster’s side, chipping ahead brilliantly and gathering the damp ball without needing to break stride as he slid across the whitewash.
While Ulster did well for the next 20 minutes or so to keep their hosts at bay, defending a maul stoutly on one occasion and gang-tackling Kolbe into touch on another, they couldn’t quite make it to the turn before another of Ugo Mola’s Galacticos came to the fore.
Once again off scrappy ball, this time it was Antoine Dupont who mesmerised with his foot-work, gliding through from virtually half-way.
Dan McFarland has called the Frenchman the best scrum-half in the world and, on this evidence, there would be few arguments.
The conversion made it 14-12 at the break but, by minute 43, Ulster were back in the lead thanks to Cooney’s penalty.
The same man had a chance to extend the advantage soon after following newly-minted Irish international Eric O’Sullivan jackalling well but the subsequent penalty drifted off line.
Even in the lead, the game felt like it could drift from Ulster too, the loss of their two most experienced international forwards Marcell Coetzee and Sam Carter to injury, both to be replaced by Champions Cup debutants was far from ideal.
Neither was the call of a forward pass on John Cooney when Ulster were expecting instead an offside.
To compound their frustration, a scrum penalty immediately followed and, from the subsequent kick to the corner, Toulouse set the maul and were soon barging their way over the line through Rory Arnold.
While there was still well over half an hour to go, the passage felt then like a shift in momentum. And yet Ulster managed to fight back once more, again through the maul and again through Rob Herring, the hooker’s last act of the game his second try. But this cracker of a game wasn’t finished and neither was Kolbe, once again the wing proving just too elusive in the corner to swing the odds back in Toulouse’s favour.
Four ahead with only 12 minutes to go, they had a chance to make it safe only for outstretched paw of Alan O’Connor to claw his own side back into it with a line-out steal when it was needed most.
That last crucial score, one final lead change, would evade Ulster though. In the end it was only fitting that Kolbe was the one to have the final say.
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