Ulster take it to the wire in European Champions Cup

Ulster captain Rory Best  addresses the team after the 26-22 win over Racing
Ulster captain Rory Best addresses the team after the 26-22 win over Racing

Head coach Dan McFarland will take his Ulster to Welford Road on Saturday and look to defeat Leicester Tigers and secure a place in the knockout stages of Europe for the first time since 2014.

A dogged and determined display from the Irish Province secured a memorable, if nail-biting, 26-22 victory over Racing 92 at a packed and bouncing Kingspan Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

The fact that Ulster had twice coughed up a 13-point advantage twice during an enthralling contest mattered little as Will Addison stroked through a penalty four seconds from time to put Ulster four points clear.

Centre Addison still had to keep his cool to collect the restart and boot it into touch as Ulster claimed another mighty French scalp in Europe.

The fact that Racing picked up two bonus points - one for losing by less than seven and a try scoring bonus - to remain top of the table, also mattered little either at the final whistle, Ulster had ensured they had done what they had to and take it to the wire in terms of knockout qualification next weekend.

A win against Leicester Tigers will secure a knockout place for the first time in five years.

The heroes of 1999 paraded the Heineken Cup they won in a fairytale campaign 20 years ago before kick-off.

It did bring back memories of a famous win 20 years to the day over Stade Francais in the semi-finals.

The ‘spirit of 99 lives on’ at the famous Belfast venue, Racing like so many of the fellow Top14 sides found Ulster a hard nut to crack in their own backyard - and like 1999, the squad of 2019 has been cobbled together and could possibly be on a journey on their own.

Ulster produced some pieces of brilliance, particularly from Ireland winger, Jacob Stockdale, his second try having echoes of the tries he scored against England on way to a Grand Slam Six Nations last March and more recently in the historic victory over New Zealand in Dublin.

On the opposite flank, European debutant, Robert Baloucoune made it a special day when he crossed for the opening try.

But having led 13-0 in as many minutes and 23-10 on 48 minutes after Stockdale’s second try and Addison’s conversion - Ulster just could not push on and take a try scoring bonus point.

Racing came to Belfast having last lost in Europe to Leinster in last season’s final.

Unbeaten in the pool and having scored freely in wins over Leicester (twice) and Ulster in Paris (they won 44-12), the Parisians battled back to within a point.

By that stage Ulster had replaced a blood soaked captain Rory Best - he had six stitches to a head wound - but the dogged determination he had displayed previously came through in the side.

Racing had finally got the momentum with them, but Ulster backrow Jordi Murphy put in a vital turnover.

The diminutive and youthful Michael Lowry, who replaced Billy Burns at outhalf, then put in a thumping tackle on one of the French side’s heavyweights Leone Nakarawa.

It was enough to rattle Racing and Ulster nudged their way forward into opposition territory with a penalty to touch and from that a second penalty provided the opportunity for Addison to make the difference four points as the clock ticked down.

The Irish centre will be criticised for not waiting another four seconds for the clock to go red before taking the kick.

Had he done so, whether he had goaled or not, the game was over.

Something for Ulster to discuss to manage for another time - there is no reason not to take anyway anything from what was another noteworthy success over French opposition.

The heroes of 1999 were among those on their feet at the end - standing up for the Ulstermen of 2019.

Having dined out on their European success for 20 years, they would be happy to hand over the mantle to Best and this talented mix of experience and youth who put one of the top sides in Europe to the sword.

A year ago Ulster defeated La Rochelle in round five and now, in a mirror scenario, have to go to an English Premiership side and deliver one more big performance.

Against Wasps last year they flopped and went from being top of the pool to third in 80 minutes.

Having clambered past Racing, they will not want to make the same mistake again.

“It’s something we’re definitely a team that’s trying to take steps forward,” said Best (on finishing the job).

“We’re no where near where we want to be. I think probably the confidence we’ve shown and the way we’ve played to get to the points tally we’re at now compared to last year I think some of the games in December, Harlequins away, we scrapped it out but I don’t think we were playing to the level we are at the minute.

“We need to tighten up a bit in our defence, but you’ve got to enjoy these wins and enjoy these days.

“We’ll come in on Monday and know we’re in a really strong position to go to Leicester and get something to go through.”

There will always be areas to improve upon and Best added: “It’s tough because you want this young team to have the confidence and the belief to go out and play.

“There are sometimes when you want to get out of their ‘22’ a bit more and not turn the ball over as cheaply.

“We’ll look at it and think we should have taken more air out of them (Racing), more out of their legs if we had kept the ball for a little bit longer.

“They’re a team that thrives on turnover ball and that give them a bit of a lift.

“It is learning. You don’t want to take away from the fact that the boys want to play but there were times in the second half when we played between the ‘10’s a lot and went through a lot of phases whenever there might have been other options.

“When you have the wingers we have you can go to the air a bit more, but we’ll take a look at that and we’ll learn.

“Our young halfbacks will look and see how they could be better, the pack will look and see could we have controlled some of those aspects better.

“It’s about, especially when you’re at home, when you get a lead not giving teams a breath,” he added.

One player who will take further confidence from his display will be scrumhalf Dave Shanahan.

Named on the bench on Friday, Shanahan found himself promoted to starting scrumhalf around 45 minutes before kick-off after Ireland flyhalf John Cooney was withdrawn with a back issue.

And, while Shanahan is still slow at times at the base of mauls and rucks, the number nine, who has improved constantly this season with every performance, delivered a solid afternoon’s work.

Head coach McFarland said of his scrumhalf, “Shaners played in Paris (against Racing), he started that game over there and he adds a tempo to the game that we love and we had no doubt he would step up to the plate and do the job.”

As for what’s ahead McFarland was focused on the task.

“We have put things back in our control and that is how we are looking at it.

“The way we look at it - playing Racing 92 at Kingspan Stadium - what an experience. Playing Leicester at Welford Road, what an experience.

“Even on itself, forget about the table, what a great place to go and try and win in a tight game of European Rugby.

“Is it going to be tough? Of course it is they are playing some very good rugby as we know, so we will look forward to that.”

Asked if 18 points (Ulster’s current total in the pool) would be enough, McFarland said: “In all honesty it is irrelevant. Let us say we had qualified already, it is not going to happen, but let’s say we had, we would still be going there to win.

“You just cannot approach a week without that because you just want to win. That is what is it about, just winning.”

In the ‘Spirit of 1999 - it is hard to see Ulster not winning.