Dogged Ulster up and running with hard-fought victory
IT was by no means pretty, but Ulster got the job done against Leicester Tigers to give themselves a satisfactory start to their Champions Cup campaign.
They face an altogether different challenge against Racing 92 next weekend. They will go to Paris full of confidence however, having brought an end to their three-game winless streak.
The horrendous weather conditions were never likely to make for an open contest and the manner in which the Ulster players rolled up their sleeves and dug in and got the job done was hugely pleasing for Rory Best.
“We put a lot of hard work into that first half but it wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard,” the captain said. “In that yellow card period (when Leicester out-half George Ford was sin-binned), we didn’t get the scores that we wanted but I think that took a lot out of them.
“Look, it was a really, really tough game. They are a quality side. They came with big runners. We had to front up a few times and just throw our bodies in the way of them. I think that’s a win we can be really, really happy with.”
It could and probably should have been more straightforward for the hosts. They dominated territory and possession from start to finish, but struggled to make it count on the scoreboard.
That was primarily down to their repeated sloppy errors, which punctured any sort of momentum.
Will Addison enhanced his reputation with an impressive display that saw him start in the centre and slot into out-half when Billy Burns and his replacement Angus Curtis were both taken off with HIAs.
Burns would return for the start of the second half, which proved timely as Ulster ramped up the pressure and ultimately bullied Leicester into submission.
There wasn’t a lot to like from the meagre performance of Geordan Mur- phy’s tame Tigers, but Ulster won’t mind a jot.
When they reflect on the win, they will feel that they should have been out of sight before Addison’s try just shy of the hour mark.
In saying that however, where Ulster are coming from, this was an all-round positive night’s work, especially because they denied the visitors a losing bonus point.
Three second-half tries from Alan O’Connor, Addison and Jacob Stockdale along with nine points from the deadly accurate boot of John Cooney drove Ulster to a fully deserved win.
Twenty-year-old Michael Lowry made his European debut at full-back and recovered well after some early nerves. To add to the positives, Marty Moore made his long-awaited first appearance for his new club.
Leicester led 3-0 after a dreadful first half in which Ford scored the only points. The England out-half turned villain, however, when he was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on Lowry.
Ulster failed to take advantage of their numerical advantage, with Best admitting that it was frustrating.
“When you’re on your own line with 14 men and even if you don’t concede, it gives you a massive lift sometimes and others it can drain you,” he said. “They started to think about the time they were defending as opposed to getting their tails up again.
“We haven’t seen the fruits of our labour yet in terms of our maul attack. We saw a little bit more of it tonight than we have this season. We’re working hard on it and I have a lot of confidence in those eight forwards to get front-foot ball for our exciting backs.”
Ulster were much improved in the second half and as they cranked up the heat, Leicester wilted. Three minutes after the restart, O’Connor powered over for the breakthrough that Ulster deserved. Cooney converted and repeated the trick when Addison scored a second try after 58 minutes.
A Cooney penalty put Ulster 17-3 to the good and Stockdale made sure of the win when centre Stuart McCloskey put him over for a converted try in the corner.
A late Manu Tuilagi try, converted by Ford, briefly threatened to put something of a dampener on proceedings for the hosts.
But again, Ulster dug deep and by the end, the home side were somewhat disappointed not to have taken a bonus point on the road to Paris.
Scorers – Ulster: O’Connor, Addison, Stockdale 1 try each, Cooney 3 cons, 1 pen. Leicester: Tuilagi 1 try, Ford 1 pen, 1 con. Ulster: M Lowry; C Gilroy, W Addison, S McCloskey (A Kernohan 77), J Stockdale; B Burns (A Curtis 39-40) (D Shanahan 64), J Cooney; A Warwick (E O’Sullivan 51),
R Best (capt) (A McBurney 74), R Kane (M Moore 33); A O’Connor (K Treadwell 58), I Henderson; M Coetzee, J Murphy (S Reidy 51), N Timoney.
Leicester Tigers: J Holmes; A Thompstone, M Tuilagi (G Owen 78), K Eastmond (M Toomua 58), J Olowofela; G Ford, B Youngs (S Harrison 58); G Bateman (D Feao 63), T Youngs (capt) (T Polota-Nau 54), D Cole (J Heyes 69); M Williams (S Lewis 77), H Wells; G Thompson, B O’Connor, S Kalamafoni. Referee: P Gauzere (France).
Ulster’s Adam McBurney. Photo: David Fitzgerald