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Magic Madigan boots Ulster into PRO14 final

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Ulster players celebrate after Ian Madigan scores the winning penalty with the last kick of the ball during the Guinness PRO14 Play-Off Semi Final between Edinburgh and Ulster at Murrayfield on September 05, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Ulster players celebrate after Ian Madigan scores the winning penalty with the last kick of the ball during the Guinness PRO14 Play-Off Semi Final between Edinburgh and Ulster at Murrayfield on September 05, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

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Ulster players celebrate after Ian Madigan scores the winning penalty with the last kick of the ball during the Guinness PRO14 Play-Off Semi Final between Edinburgh and Ulster at Murrayfield on September 05, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

WHEN Dan McFarland arrived in Ulster just a touch over two years ago, he gathered his new troops together and instructed that the bare minimum expected would be that each man in the changing room would fight for every inch.

It quickly became the mantra for a side who had long been accused of having a soft underbelly. If the transformation was quick, the province battling their way to some notable early wins in the former Connacht man's tenure, it didn't reach its peak until last night as the side somehow booked their place in next week's PRO14 Final.

Awful since lockdown ended and error-strewn throughout a Semi-Final against Edinburgh that they entered without their captain Iain Henderson and three of their starting backs, they somehow raised themselves from the dead three times over to put themselves in a position for one last lengthy shot at the posts.

Ian Madigan, a cult figure at Bristol after coming through in just such moments, wouldn't even have been eligible for this game had coronavirus not caused such a lengthy delay to this season. Instead, he was the match-winner.

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Ulster players mob Ian Madigan after he kicked the winning penalty that defeated Edinburgh 22-19 and sent them to the Guinness PRO14 final (Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

Ulster players mob Ian Madigan after he kicked the winning penalty that defeated Edinburgh 22-19 and sent them to the Guinness PRO14 final (Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

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Ulster players mob Ian Madigan after he kicked the winning penalty that defeated Edinburgh 22-19 and sent them to the Guinness PRO14 final (Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

Here he was, having been with the province only a matter of months, on the pitch for only eight minutes and already having nailed a testing touchline conversion to keep hopes alive, with a chance to send Ulster through to a first Final since 2013 - against his native province no less.

The silence in the stadium - with so few in attendance - as the clock went red was complete. As the ball sailed towards the posts, Madigan leaned to his left, tongue protruding from his mouth, as if not wanting to jinx the ball in flight.

His skills coach Dan Soper was first to him, soon followed by Jack McGrath, arms pumping and screaming into the air. A split second later, he couldn't be seen for the pile of bodies that surrounded him, the whoops, the hollars, the elation echoing around the near-empty old stadium.

Soon, as everyone made for the tunnel and the sanctity of the changing room, only James Hume was left, looking around him as if it was a struggle to take it all in. He could be forgiven for needing the moment.

In the strictest terms, the endgame was straightforward enough, Madigan's penalty following a deliberate knock-on from Edinburgh's replacement Mike Willemse.

The story that those dramatic final moments failed to tell was that the first time Ulster ever looked like winning this Semi-Final was the split second when that final kick split the posts.

After a first half in which Hamish Watson, Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham were superb, Edinburgh's only complaint could have been that they didn't lead by more than 5-0.

Ulster had plenty of opportunities to register points themselves but the familiar failings of recent weeks were all too evident.

Mistake upon mistake, error upon error, chance after chance gone begging.

When Graham made it 12-0 six minutes into the second half, the ink was wet on another season obituary. The familiar glass ceiling of a PRO14 Semi-Final once again looking like one hurdle too many for the side.

Even when Rob Lyttle, dangerous throughout in a game he may not have started if more experienced colleagues were fit, showed exceptional footwork to dance his way across the whitewash, it didn't feel like the start of a rousing fightback.

Even less so when it took Edinburgh only three minutes to hit straight back.

After being down 12 again having had to work so hard for any reward on the scoreboard, their race again seemed run.

When finally their maul made some headway and Rob Herring crashed over with 15 minutes to go, the missed conversion kept Edinburgh with a one-score buffer. In the context of the game, it felt like a mountain.

But this, perhaps we are finally safe to say, is a different Ulster.

Just as McFarland's very first game in charge of this side would see them mount a furious late comeback to beat none other than this same Edinburgh side, there was late drama left in store.

Replacement hooker John Andrew was the next one over, again from a maul, and a weapon that had seemed so blunted early on had suddenly powered Ulster back within touching distance.

In the end, the boot of Madigan did the rest, those five late points already well worth whatever it took to bring him in this summer.

The celebrations that rang out into the Edinburgh night can't last too long - there is the small matter of serial winners Leinster in an Aviva Stadium Final come Saturday evening.

Nobody remembers Semi-Final winners, Billy Burns reminded. This, though, was no Semi-Final to forget.

EDINBURGH: B Kinghorn; D Graham, M Bennett, C Dean; D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, N Groom; R Sutherland, S McInally (Capt), WP Nel; B Toolis, G Gilchrist; M Bradbury, H Watson, V Mata.

Replacements: M Willemse (for McInally, 68), P Schoeman (for Sutherland, 51), S Berghan (for WP Nel, 46), A Davidson (forToolis, 68), J Ritchie (for Mata, 63), C Shiel, N Chamberlain, G Taylor (for Dean, 59)

ULSTER: J Stockdale, L Ludik, J Hume, S McCloskey, R Lyttle, B Burns (Capt), J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Herring, T O'Toole, A O'Connor, S Carter, Matthew Rea, J Murphy, M Coetzee.

Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 69) , J McGrath (for O'Sullivan, 51), M Moore (for O'Toole, 51), K Treadwell (for Carter, 49), S Reidy (for Murphy, 48), A Mathewson (for Cooney, 40), I Madigan (for Burns, 69), M Lowry (for Ludik, 40)

REFEREE: Frank Murphy (IRFU)

Man of the Match: Rob Lyttle

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