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Ulster's European dream is alive and kicking again

By Gavin Mairs

That's more like it. Following the desperate disappointment of the defeat at the Madejski Stadium last Saturday, Ulster sent their supporters home full of festive cheer last night as a bonus-point victory kept the province's Heineken Cup hopes alive and kicking.

All eyes will now turn to pool five leaders Llanelli's trip to Toulouse later today. Should the Welsh region slip to their first defeat in France, their trip to Ravenhill on January 13 would take on a huge significance and blow the pool wide open.

As it was Ulster did all that was expected of them, if admittedly after a rather hesitant and error-ridden first half which saw Irish enter the interval 6-5 in front as two penalties by Shane Geraghty cancelled out a touchdown by Andrew Trimble.

But the second half was like the Ulster of old. Dominant, relentless and imperious.

Tries by David Humphreys on this 150th cap for his province, Neil McMillan and Paul Steinmetz blew Irish away as Ulster exacted a painful revenge on the Exiles.

Ulster set the early tone when Humphreys, who made up for his disappointing display in Reading with a sublime show, opted to kick a penalty for the corner from the home side's first sustained spell of pressure.

Steinmetz almost made the breakthrough as he picked up a loose pass from Isaac Boss but the New Zealander lost possession at the breakdown and Irish were able to clear their lines through Mike Catt.

Irish's response was impressive, an indication of the confidence garnered from last Saturday's victory at the Madejksi Stadium. No 8 Juan Leguizamon almost took advantage of a loose pass by Paddy Wallace but his second hack ahead with the line at his mercy was overcooked and went dead, much to the home side's relief.

And following a lively break by former Ireland wing Justin Bishop, who eluded a tackle by Andrew Trimble, the visitors took the lead when Shane Geraghty, who had been so influential in Reading, slotted a 15th minute penalty.

Ulster's response was fearsome, with the home pack winning the restart and after Justin Fitzpatrick had made the hard yards in the midfield, the province were awarded an attacking scrum on the 22.

It was all they needed. A backrow move sucked in the Irish defence on the right and from Humphreys perfectly-placed cross-kick, Trimble gathered and had the power and pace to race over in the corner in the 20th minute, even if the crowd had to wait several moments for the television match official to confirm the touchdown.

The visitors' game was beginning to unravel in the pressure. Matt McCullough stole an attacking line-out ball before Seilala Mapusua threw a forward pass and then lost possession in contact.

But for all Ulster's high tempo, they too lacked the precision to kick on. And Irish should have taken the lead after Isaac Boss was penalised and then sent to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Delon Armitage, but Geraghty scuffed his shot at goal.

The impressive out-half did not make the same mistake in the 33rd minute when he was handed another penalty in front of the posts after the Ulster flanker Neil Best had been harshly penalised for hands in the ruck.

The rugged flanker however responded with a couple of powerful drives from the restart but after a pile-driving break by Roger Wilson, Humphreys was able to land a 40-metre penalty following a rather desperate drop-goal shot by Paul Steinmetz.

At least Ulster had not conceded any further points during Boss's absence and on his return the home side upped the ante as the half drew to a close.

Neat handling by Justin Harrison and Neil Best put Paddy Wallace into space and although the move broke down after a charge by Justin Fitzpatrick, Ulster were awarded the scrum deep into injury time.

Half-breaks by Humphreys and Steinmetz however did not yield any reward and frustrating for the capacity crowd at Ravenhill, the home side entered the interval trailing, just as they had done in Reading.

Yet if Ulster had been undone last Saturday by their failure to take their opportunities at the start of the second half, they did not make the same mistake twice. First Humphreys made the breakthrough with a try more akin to the amateur era when he tapped a penalty while Irish turned their backs for what they thought would be a kick for the posts.

The Ulster veteran showed a sharp turn of pace to race over for a try in the 45th minute and his superb conversion gave the home side a six-point advantage and importantly in range of a bonus point.

The old master began to find his pomp, pinning Irish back with several scorching torpedoes to the corners. And after the Irish pack were wrapped up on their 22, Humphreys narrowly missed with a drop-goal attempt but Ulster's pressure remained relentless.

When Irish No 8 Juan Leguizamon conceded a needless penalty for throwing a punch at McCullough, Humphreys took his side two scores clear with his second penalty in the 53rd minute.

The killer blows followed when first Steinmetz put Neil McMillan over following Bryn Cunningham's cross kick and the crucial fourth try came three minutes from the end when Steinmetz raced over.

This pool is not dead for Ulster just yet.

ULSTER: B Cunningham; M Bartholomeusz, P Steinmetz, P Wallace, A Trimble; D Humphreys, I Boss; J Fitzpatrick, R Best, S Best, J Harrison, M McCullough, N Best, K Dawson, R Wilson.

Subs: N McMillan for Dawson (50), B Young for Fitzpatrick (63), K Maggs for Wallace (63), T Barker for McCullough (68), K Campbell for Boss (68)

LONDON IRISH: M Horak; D Armitage, S Mapusua, M Catt, J Bishop; S Geraghty, P Hodgson; N Hatley, D Coetzee, T Lea'aetoa, N Kennedy, B Casey, K Roche, S Armitage, J Leguizamon.

Subs: G Tiesi for Catt (40), M Collins for Coetzee (46), F Rautenbach for Hatley (46), P Murphy for Leguizamon (61), B Everitt for Geraghty (68), J Hudson for Kennedy (68).

Referee: C Berdos (FFR)

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