Ulster produce their best performance of the season in snowy conditions to defeat Harlequins in the third round of the Champions Cup.
Jacob Stockdale scored Ulster’s only try of the match while John Cooney knocked over four penalties in a man of the match display from the scrum-half.
In the earlier stages of the half, Ulster controlled the possession and looked to attack Harlequins in the wide channels. Cooney opened the scoring for Ulster with a penalty in the sixth minute before Stockdale crossed on 25 minutes. Cooney collected the ball after scrappy play and found space down the left wing. Sean Reidy was on hand to gather the offload and then pass to Stockdale after fixing Quins’ winger, Charlie Walker.
Due to the conditions in the first half, clear cut chances were minimal, with Ulster having two and Quins having just one. Despite the testing conditions, Ulster made few handling errors and it paid off by limiting the time spent by Harlequins in the Ulster half.
Ulster were courageous and motivated throughout the whole game, however an incident at the end of the first half signaled that this was not a performance that we have become accustomed to. Harlequins found themselves five metres out from the Ulster line after a great touch kick from Marcus Smith. The Ulster pack drove the English maul into touch and Ulster went in at the break 8-0 up.
Throughout the afternoon, the maul defence was a major positive. Iain Henderson. Alan O’Connor and Kieran Treadwell continuously found themselves on the ball and rendered their maul ineffective. All three players have been excellent in the white jersey this season. Ulster were the better side in the first half and deserved the lead but Harlequins didn’t play the conditions well their attack was easy for Ulster to defend.
Conditions improved in the second half and the home side scored their first points of the afternoon in the 50th minute. Ulster failed to get out of their half in the opening ten minutes and struggled to get their hands on the ball. Iain Henderson pulled off a try saving tackle on Mat Luamanu but Kyle Sinckler crossed four minutes later off the back of good forward work from the home side.
Credit where it’s due, Ulster battled back and big performances in the forward pack, namely Iain Henderson, Nick Timoney and Sean Reidy secured an excellent victory. Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst performed exceptionally up against two Lions’ players in Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler.
Cooney knocked over four penalties after Sinckler’s score to deny the home side a losing bonus point and seal a super Ulster victory. Ulster’s scrum half was at the heart of everything positive. His box kicking was excellent, as it has been for the majority of the season and has eased concerns about Ruan Pienaar’s departure. This match is a stark contrast to Ulster’s other away trips this season. The side looked confident and back their ability to get the job done and this confidence has not be present in other away trips.
It was a much better defensive performance. Against the Dragons Ulster conceded 7 line breaks however Ulster limited Harlequins to only two breaches of the defensive line. The line speed was much quicker and prevented Marcus Smith from controlling the game. The pack was a menace for Quins with Rob Herring securing two turnovers, while an impressive cameo from Chris Henry brought another experienced head to the pack.
Both teams face off at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night. With Harlequins going through an injury crisis and John Kingston admitting that his side’s European campaign is over, Harlequins are expected to name an understrength side. Ulster need to back this victory up with a bonus point win to keep the European light flickering.
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Craig Gilroy, Tommy Bowe, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Christian Lealiifano, John Cooney; Callum Black, Rob Herring, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney. Replacements: Andrew Warwick, Ross Kane, Matthew Rea, Chris Henry, Paul Marshall, Peter Nelson, Louis Ludik