Ulster back up their win at the Stoop with an emphatic six-try victory against Harlequins in the fourth round of the European Champions Cup in Belfast.
John Cooney scored 27 points, including a try, in the 52-24 victory. Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy, Charles Piutau, Alan O’Connor and Andrew Trimble were Ulster’s other try scorers.
Ulster held a slender 16-12 lead at half time, but five second half tries secured the bonus point victory to take the home side to 13 points in the group and heap the pressure onto Wasps ahead of their match against La Rochelle this weekend.
The clear conditions aided a fast game of rugby and Rob Herring signalled Ulster’s intent with a break inside the first couple of minutes. The hooker found space in the defensive line and showed great gas to take play up to the Ulster 22m line. John Cooney knocked over the following penalty.
Cooney extended Ulster’s lead to six points with another penalty before Quins’ Marcus Smith crossed for the night’s opening try. A brilliant kick from Christian Lealiifano and sublime control from Stuart McCloskey resulted in Ulster’s first try. The big centre showed pace to get away from Charlie Walker to gather his own hack through and dot down.
Ulster’s defence was suspect in the first half. Missed tackles gave the opposition cheap field position on the half hour mark and Charlie Matthews eventually crossed to bring the away side to within one point. Unlike last week, Ulster were cut open too easily and conceded 14 clean line breaks compared to last week’s 2. Another penalty from John Cooney gave Ulster a slender lead at the break.
Rather than staying on his wing, Jacob Stockdale found himself following the ball along the offensive line and picking it up in the 13 channel where he had oodles of space thanks to the good decoy lines being run by centres McCloskey and Louis Ludik. This move gave Ulster momentum inside the opposition 22m line and was the basis of both Craig Gilroy and Charles Piutau’s tries. Cooney penalty between the tries to take the game away from Quins.
Ross Chisholm scored Harlequins’ third try to give the side a glimmer of hope. That hope was taken away by Kyle Sinckler who was sent to the bin and Ulster capitalized and secured the bonus point courtesy of Alan O’Connor after more excellent work from Jacob Stockdale. Dave Ward scored Harlequins’ bonus point try by catching Ulster’s fringe defence out. Cooney scored his try with eight minutes to go before replacement, Andrew Trimble, took Ulster past the 50-point mark.
Christian Lealiifano was rewarded for his display by receiving the man of the match award however he was not the only stand out player. John Cooney has already established himself as a key first team player and continued his string of good performances, while Jacob Stockdale showed why he is a menace for opposition defenders. Iain Henderson brought much needed leadership to the province in Rory Best’s absence and Best’s understudy, Rob Herring impressed last night. Craig Gilroy has recaptured his form and produced another dazzling attacking display.
There were a few question marks on Ulster’s performance last night. Ulster missed 34 tackles last night which is the most this season. While there is uncertainty surrounding Ulster’s defensive shape, a lot of the tackles missed last night were one-on-ones and led to soft Harlequins’s scores. The issues at the lineout remain. Last week Ulster won 75% of their lineouts but the completion rate dropped to 55% this week. Ulster have three inter-provincial derbies coming up over the Christmas and New Year period and all three of their Irish compatriots pride themselves on their set piece. It will be difficult to win any of the matches if Ulster’s lineout continues to falter.
It was a good team performance that did what was required and puts pressure onto the other second place sides that play over the weekend. Saracens, who sit on 10 points, travel to the Auvergne while Exeter are away to Leinster in Pool 3. The other Pool 3 match sees Montpellier, who sit on 8 points, host Galsgow Warriors and it is likely that they will win with a bonus point. Pool 4 is unlikely to see a second place side qualify, while Bath (9 points) host Toulon.
Of course Ulster need to focus on winning the last two games against Wasps and La Rochelle as a second place finish is not a foregone conclusion.
It’s a return to league action next week as Ulster travel to Galway to take on Connacht.
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Christian Lealiifano, John Cooney; Callum Black, Rob Herring, Wiehahn Herbst, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Nick Timoney.