Ulster: Irish Province secure a precious last eight spot in European Champions Cup

Ulster captain y''Rory Best talks to his team after Heineken Champions Cup  final round in Pool 4 which saw them defeat Leicester Tigers 14-13
Ulster captain y''Rory Best talks to his team after Heineken Champions Cup final round in Pool 4 which saw them defeat Leicester Tigers 14-13

Ulster are back at the top table of European Rugby after an absence of five years.

A 14-13 win over Leicester Tigers at Welford Road gave them the win they needed to secure one of the best runners-up spots across the five groups.

The performance over the 80-plus minutes was everything we have become accustomed with the Province this season - and before - a bit of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Thankfully the latter part was the good and as rousing as their fightback from 13-0 down was, their resilience once they had taken a 14-13 lead shone through.

As Leicester dominated the Irish Province in the first half and punished error after error they fully deserved their 10-0 interval lead - thanks to a Tom Mootau try and a penalty and conversion from the boot of outhalf George Ford.

Going into the game Ulster had one foot in the quarter-final and Edinburgh’s success on Friday night over Montpellier left them needing one match point to secure a place in the quarter-finals. Indeed, even a loss could possibly have put them through, but Ulster did not want to looking over their shoulder as Munster faced Exeter in the third of the Super Saturday games.

In a similar scenario last year - following a big home success over a French giant - Ulster went to Wasps and flopped.

And after that first half display at Welford Road memories of the Ricoh Arena were not far away in the minds.

Ulster captain Rory Best had said in the build-up the squad were better placed than a year ago and they stepped up to the plate.

Having been boosted by the surprise early return from injury of British Lion and Ireland lock, Iain Henderson, who also made his 100th appearance for the Province, Ulster had another weapon in the armoury - scrumhalf John Cooney.

Forced to miss the Racing 92 victory a week earlier in Belfast with a back issue, Cooney was back in the matchday panel, but surprisingly on the bench, Ulster keeping faith with an improving Dave Shanahan.

Not all the credit for the victory can fall with Cooney - but his introduction on the 49th minute as Ford had kicked Wasps into a 13-0 lead - turned the game on its head. Henderson may have been named Heineken man of the match - had Cooney been on sooner, the scrumhalf would have laid claims on it.

From the 50th minute, the Ulster side that has been seen more often than not appeared. The malfunctioning lineout stopped, the errors stopped. Cooney gave the side direction.

With the lineout also sparking again, a drive and maul to the line eventually saw prop Marty Moore peel of the blindside to go over on 58 minutes.

Cooney’s touchline conversion had Ulster within the losing bonus point territory they needed.

But their tails were up and when Leicester overthrew a lineout, Ulster were ready to pounce.

Outhalf Billy Burns’ delightful chip over the cover saw young Academy winger Robert Baloucoune race through to gather and he made sure he ran in to dot under the posts and leave Cooney’s conversion a formality.

Baloucoune had only made his European debut a week earlier and scored on his debut. This second try will mean more to the lad from Enniskillen who served his time on the Ireland sevens circuit.

There were still 17 minutes on the clock and Ulster looked for reinforcements. Nick Timoney had already replaced Marcell Coetzee in the first half and when Sean Reidy began limping heavily, Rob Herring was summoned from the bench, the replacement hooker filling in the backrow gap - a position where he had made his Ireland debut. At the same time Alan O’Connor came on to add further grunt in the engine room (Kieran Treadwell yielding) and Michael Lowry replaced Burns who had gone off HIA.

Leicester threw one last roll of the dice. Ford had broken clear and it looked as if Greg Bateman was going to break Ulster’ resistance in the closing minutes.

But Baloucoune made a wonderful covering tackle, Best got over the ball and Leicester infringed.

And from there it was a matter of closing things out which Ulster did.

The below par first half performance was forgotten about and Ulster had - on their right - claimed a last eight spot.

They will now relish the challenge of facing the champions Leinster in the Aviva Stadium on the last weekend of March - and seeking to secure a rare win in any competition over their provincial rivals.

It will be a mouth-watering fixture and for the Ulster fans, a great opportunity to go to Dublin for a big quarter-final game in numbers.

In 2012, when Leinster defeated Ulster in the final at Twickenham, the Aviva Stadium was taken over by the Ulster fans for their semi-final against Edinburgh. Brian McLaughlin’s charges had previously won as underdogs in Limerick’s Thomond Park against Munster.

And like seven seasons ago, Ulster will have nothing to lose, having already exceeded expectations by emerging from their pool with five wins in six games, losing only to Racing 92 away.

With head coach Dan McFarland having made an impressive impact since his arrival at the start of the season, Ulster will relish having a shot at the reigning champions, even if their record in Dublin is poor.

For Ireland openside flanker Jordi Murphy, it means a return to face the province he helped to European glory last season, starting the final against Racing at number eight.

And with a host of other ex-Leinster players such as John Cooney, Marty Moore, Eric O’Sullivan, Alan O’Connor, Dave Shanahan and Nick Timoney in the Ulster ranks, there will be an even stronger sense of familiarity than is always the case in inter-pro fixtures.

It promises to be a cracking affair.