Ulster stun Racing 92 to keep knockout chances in European Champions Cup alive

Jacob Stockdale scores on of his two tries against Racing in Belfast
Jacob Stockdale scores on of his two tries against Racing in Belfast

Ulster 26 Racing 92 22

Ulster’s hopes of making the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup for the first time since 2014 received a further boost as they produced another memorable victory over French opposition on Saturday afternoon.

The unbeaten Pool Four leaders Racing 92 like so many, came to Belfast and like so many French sides left defeated.

It was the first defeat for the Top 14 side in Europe this season and they remain top of the table as they look to secure a knockout spot next week by winning at home against Scarlets.

Ulster moved to within three points of the leaders and although 18 points may still not be enough, they know they can still go to Leicester Tigers next week with the chance of a last eight place still in their control.

A back issue forced John Cooney out of the Ulster starting lineout, confirmed half and hour before kick-off, which saw Dave Shanahan promoted from the bench and Johnny Stewart drafted in.

It may have unsettled the fans to see a star man missing, but it did not appear to affect the players.

The heroes of 1999 had paraded the Heineken Cup before kick-off and inspired or not by that, Ulster made their best start in four matches as they took the game to Racing.

A second minute penalty from outhalf Billy Burns opened the scoring for the home side and then from a lineout on seven minutes, Ulster sprayed ball left and debutant winger Robert Baloucoune was sent in by fullback Louis Ludik for an unconverted try.

The biggest home crowd of the season were then treated to another piece of fine play from their side.

It had started under their own posts, Marcell Coetzee stealing ball, Ulster then broke out through centre Stuart McCloskey and his perfectly timed and disguised pass to Will Addison eventually led to the outside centre sending winger Jacob Stockdale away for a try to make it 13-0 in as many minutes.

Burns had missed both those conversions but Ulster had at least put themselves in an even better position with such an impressive start.

Racing threatened on the right through Simon Zebo, but Kieran Treadwell’s tackle halted the immediate danger.

But a stolen lineout by the French side’s backrow Baptiste Chouzenoux - who would take no further part after it - led to the visitors getting a foothold and when mountainous centre Virmi Vakatawa got the ball he bulldozed his way in from 20 yards for a try, outhalf Finn Russell unable to convert the 20th minute score.

Stockdale looked as if he would get a second, Racing had infringed and from the free play, Burns’ crossfield kick looked perfect, but Stockdale seemed to run with his man than follow the ball, which bounced away from him.

Play came back for the penalty and it was Addison who goaled the three points and a 16-5 lead.

In the 27th minute Racing hit back, Henry Chavancy opened the Ulster backline up and when Vakatawa took it on there was likely to be one outcome. He passed out to Zebo and the winger crossed the try eventually awarded on TMO review. Russell again failed with the conversion but the French side had cut the deficit to six points.

Referee Matthew Carley, having received treatment to a calf midway through the first half, threw the towel in at the break and was replaced by English countryman, Andrew Jackson in the middle.

The second half was erratic from both sides plenty of ball movement and running around, but little structure to it.

Then from nothing, Stockdale receives ball on the left flank, slips replacement Olivier Klemenczak and races down the tramline. His kick ahead saw him confronted by three racing players, but he tracked correctly the ball bounced kindly and he finished off a fine individual try. Addison converted and Ulster had a 23-10 lead as well as now being in bonus-point territory after 47 minutes.

Poor Ulster tackling had them in all sorts of trouble as Racing tried to force the game. But a knockout let the hosts off the hook.

And from another attack, again some poor tackling aided Racing in making ground, but an uncharacteristic dropped pass Vakatawa probably denied a certain try.

But the French side’s pressure was ultimately rewarded having gone route one from a lineout after a penalty. Ulster repelled seven phases on their own line before Racing fired the ball left and when Vakatawa received with a two-man overlap the outcome was already over before fullback Brice Dulin crossed.

Russell missed his third kick of the afternoon and Racing trailed by eight points.

However, on 63 minutes Ulster’s defence looked ragged as the French charged, and the flair of the visitors showed when Chavancy and Russell simply played with the Ulster cover and Klemenczak went over.

Replacement Teddy Iribaren was handed the kicking duties and he landed the extras to put his side a point behind after 67 minutes.

Racing were now on the front foot, Ulster had now virtually emptied the bench,

Both teams came in spurts. A McCloskey break seemed to open things a little, but he was brought down and replacement Michael Lowry tried to get away with Shanahan caught at the break.

Racing, with a chip and chase from Chavancy, had them going forwards - but superb tackling from Ulster forced the penalty on the edge of their ‘22’ and it lifted the home crowd once again.

Then another lost Ulster lineout and the French came, Vakatawa again making the early running before Chavancy was away and with winger Imhoff in the clear, the pass was forward.

Ulster then found a little bit more in reserve, a penalty on halfway, securing their own lineout and then another penalty chance with a minute left,

Addison lined in up and nailed the long range effort as the clock went into the red to put four points between the sides.

Racing restarted, Addison safely gathered the kick and the ball was only going to find touch.

Another memorable victory for Ulster secured and their chances of qualification boosted further to make those knockout stages.