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Ulster turn on style to ensure home comforts in the play-offs

Ulster 29 Edinburgh 7

Ulster ace Stuart McCloskey.
Ulster ace Stuart McCloskey.
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster picked a fine time to produce their best league performance of the campaign in Edinburgh last night and were rewarded with not just a place in the play-offs but the added bonus of knowing their quarter-final will be at Kingspan Stadium.

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Having lost to Glasgow just a short distance down the M8 a week before, Dan McFarland's men went to Murrayfield under real pressure to right the ship and get their play-off push back on track but were far superior on the night, limiting their hosts to only one try while scoring four themselves.

With results elsewhere going their way, the 29-7 success was enough to guarantee second spot in Conference B behind runaway leaders Leinster.

After crumbling somewhat a week ago, this was a performance built upon rock-solid foundations.

The lineout had been a massive concern coming in given the frequent malfunctions in Glasgow a week ago, but the return of Iain Henderson to captain the side appeared to have the desired effect.

It was after Marcell Coetzee clamped himself in at the breakdown to win a penalty that Ulster knocked to touch. When Edinburgh infringed again, John Cooney struck the ball between the posts.

Marty Moore was lost soon after though, an injury to his left ankle ending his evening after only nine minutes. The prop has been a huge boost to Ulster this season and there will be big concern should they have to enter the play-offs without him.

In the immediate aftermath though, Dan McFarland's men extended their lead in somewhat fortuitous circumstances.

A kick in behind from Jacob Stockdale put Edinburgh under all sorts of pressure and the visitors looked set to bag the first try only for Magnus Bradbury to rip the ball from the grasp of Nick Timoney. Jordi Murphy alertly dived upon the loose ball and slid across the whitewash. So often deemed a knock-on, as Ulster found to their cost two weeks ago in the Champions Cup, after checking with his TMO Nigel Owens correctly adjudged that the try should stand.

Ulster were posing frequent questions and possessed all the momentum, but at only 10-0, Edinburgh were still within touching distance.

Between missed touches, kicks out on the full and one penalty back off the post, the hosts' game was full of errors and they would have been pleased to be down only 10 at the half.

But, just as the clock turned red, a sliced clearance gave Ulster one more chance and Robert Baloucoune seized it with both hands.

The Enniskillen youngster had endured a few hairy moments under the high ball but when Billy Burns' looped a miss-pass into the winger's arms, he beat Scotland full-back Darcy Graham all ends up before bursting past Henry Pyrgos to finish in the corner.

Cooney couldn't land the extras from the touchline but turning round knowing Edinburgh needed three scores will have completely changed the feeling in the away changing room.

Richard Cockerill's side had come back from 12-0 down to win away to Scarlets a week ago but, with Ulster's defence in no mood to surrender easy scores, it was looking a tall order. Even more so when, with 25 minutes remaining, a well-executed move by Ulster got the ball to Rob Lyttle out on the wing.

There was still so much to do but having stepped Matt Scott he dragged three Edinburgh tacklers with him across the line.

Substitute flanker John Barclay got one back quickly for Edinburgh but they never looked like hauling Ulster back.

Indeed, things got even better for the province soon after, though not in Murrayfield. Munster, who with an eye on next week's European semi-final had heavily rotated, had kicked off out in Treviso 35 minutes prior and did their near neighbours a huge favour by recording a 37-22 win, denying Benetton a single match point.

A win, therefore, was going to be enough not just to seal a place in the play-offs but ensure that the quarter-final game would be at Kingspan Stadium.

With two minutes to go, Burns provided the icing on the cake and the bonus-point score, although Stockdale joined Moore as an injury concern after he left the field clutching his hamstring.

Still, a fine evening's work for McFarland's men and now an even bigger game to come in the first weekend of May.

EDINBURGH: D Graham; D Hoyland, M Bennett, M Scott, D Van der Merwe; J Van der Walt, H Pyrgos; P Schoeman, S McInally, WP Nel; B Toolis, G Gilchrist; M Bradbury, H Watson, V Mata.

Replacements: R Ford (for McInally, 67), A Dell (for Schoeman, 62), S Berghan (for Nel, 46), C Hunter-Hill (for Toolis, 68), J Barclay (for Bradbury, 49), C Shiel (for Pyrgos, 63) S Hickey (for van der Walt, 33), G Taylor.

ULSTER: J Stockdale; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; I Henderson, K Treadwell; N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee.

Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 79), A Warwick (for O'Sullivan, 73), R Kane (for Moore, 9), A O'Connor (for Treadwell, 62), S Reidy (for Timoney, 67), D Shanahan (for Stockdale, 79), P Nelson (for Cooney, 79), A Kernohan (for Baloucoune, 49)

Man of the match: Iain Henderson (ULS)

Referee: N Owens (WRU)

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