Ulster open their European Rugby Champions Cup campaign with a 19-9 victory over Wasps at Kingspan Stadium.
Jacob Stockdale crossed on 55 minutes before Stuart McCloskey converted a rapid Ulster counter attack two minutes later, however the match wasn’t all plain sailing for the Ulstermen.
Wasps opened the scoring courtesy of the boot of Elliot Daly after Kyle McCall was penalized at the scrum inside three minutes. Ulster had an opportunity to level the scores up on 11 minutes but John Cooney’s penalty attempt drifted to the right of the posts.
In the opening moments of the half, Ulster had the majority of possession but handling errors yet again were the enemy. Jacob Stockdale made a bust into the Wasps’ 22 off a set piece move and after Elliot Daly was adjudged to have strayed offside, John Cooney slotted the resulting penalty to level the game up.
The wet conditions were not helping either side as the error count reached double figures by the end of the first half. An unforced error just before the half hour mark allowed Wasps to counter from inside their own 22m line. Josh Bassett kicked the ball into space but John Cooney had enough gas to track back to save Ulster’s skin.
The pressure wasn’t over as Ulster conceded another penalty from the resulting scrum. Terrific work from Iain Henderson foiled Wasps as he held up the ball from the maul. Jimmy Gopperth gave Wasps the lead at the break with a penalty.
Wasps were the dominant side at the start of the second half and Jimmy Gopperth extended their lead by knocking over a penalty in front of the posts. Terrific ball retention from Ulster allowed Ulster to make their way up to the Wasps 5m. Jean Deysel and Iain Henderson lead from the front however Christian Lealiifano was millimetres short from scoring the night’s first try.
Jacob Stockdale crossed for the night’s first try on 55 minutes. Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall ran great dummy lines allowing Charlie Piutau a one-on-one with Christian Wade. Piutau fixed both Wade and Willie Le Roux and allowed Stockdale to score in the corner. Cooney missed the conversion which would have given Ulster the lead.
As soon as one try was scored another followed. Piutau was the quickest to react to a Willie Le Roux knock on. The Kiwi launched a counter attack, passing to Stockdale and the former Wallace man threw the ball inside for Stuart McCloskey who was on hand to dot down. The conversion was unsuccessful but Ulster once again marched to within five metres of the Wasps’ line from the restart, stopped only by a knock on in contact.
After Ulster’s flurry of scores, Wasps found it difficult to get their hands on the ball. Lealiifano assumed the kicking responsibilities when Cooney was replaced and he kicked a penalty to widen the gap to seven points, 16-9. With six minutes remaining Josh Bassett was sent to the sin bin for his third high tackle allowing Lealiifano to convert the kick and force Wasps to leave Belfast empty handed.
The first half was stop start for Ulster but they sprung to life after Stockdale scored. The British and Irish Lions experience seems to have kicked Iain Henderson into life as he delivered another fine performance. Jean Deysel was clinical over the ball and the ever reliable John Cooney controlled things from scrum half. Charles Piutau is not leaving Ulster without a whimper, getting through a lot of work by carrying 15 times for 137m.
Man of the match Jacob Stockdale has already established himself as a fan favourite at the age of 21 and he is nailed on to take an Irish wing spot in the upcoming Autumn Internationals. Stockdale made three clean breaks, just one less than the entire Wasps team, defeating five defenders in the process. With the ball in hand Stockdale is lethal and the Ulster crowd sits up whenever he is running at the opposition.
A pleasing aspect was Ulster’s defence. Wasps had only one try scoring opportunity and credit has to go to Les Kiss for organizing Ulster’s midfield. Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey made 15 tackles between them, missing just one in the process which helped prevent Wasps from getting any width on the game. Ulster’s defence merited a ten point win and to snatch the losing bonus point from Wasps will prove crucial in January.
Next week Ulster travel to the Atlantic French coast to take on La Rochelle. Ulster haven’t performed well in the two away fixtures this season, Treviso and Zebre, so to go to the Stade Marcel-Deflandre and win will be a tremendous ask.
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Louis Ludik, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Christian Lealiifano, John Cooney; Kyle McCall, Rob Herring, Wiehahn Herbst, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack, Sean Reidy, Jean Deysel. Replacements: John Andrew, Callum Black, Rodney Ah You, Matthew Rea, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall, Pete Nelson, Tommy Bowe.