Ulster crash out of the European Champions Cup after a 26-7 defeat away to Wasps in the Ricoh Arena.
Sean Reidy’s first half try was the only response in what was dire display from the Northern province.
Wasps opened the scoring in the 12th minute. Ulster’s maul defence has been disappointing all season and it was no different on this occasion. A Wasps penalty after a great steal in the lineout from James Gaskell gave the home side field position and eventually Guy Thompson crashed over. While on Sunday Ulster only lost two lineouts, it seemed that the Wasps’ forwards had deciphered Ulster’s calls and if it wasn’t for quick movement from Ulster they would have lost even more.
Ulster struggled to gain a foothold in the game and a second Wasps’ try was ominous. The backline defence was found to be too narrow giving Juan de Jongh, Willie Le Roux, Christian Wade and Marcus Watson acres of space in the wide channels. Kyle Eastmond had a very good game at inside centre, while some would say he was not up against much from a chaotic, but still individually talented, Ulster backline he provided a second playmaking option outside Cipriani.
De Jongh often ran dummy lines at thirteen, and a pod of forwards in the middle of the pitch fixed the Ulster defence which left space on the outside. Nevertheless Ulster didn’t have any line speed allowing the home side to make metres on every carry. Between Willie Le Roux, Christian Wade and Marcus Watson they made 97 metres off 21 carries.
Ulster scored a breakaway try after a Christian Wade error which proved nothing more than a consolation. Eight minutes later Wasps regained the lead. Tom Cruse was able to get onto a chip kick through from Cipriani and Wasps were half way to claiming second position in the group.
At half time, Ulster could have struggled to make a worse start to such an important match where a win would secure a first appearance in the European knockout stages since 2014. Unforced errors and knock ons prevented Ulster from building any sustained momentum. Ulster barely troubled the Wasps line all game.
Nothing improved after the break. Turnovers galore, Ulster’s first venture into the Wasps’ half was to kick off after Willie Le Roux’s try on 47 minutes. Ulster’s misery was complete when Jake Cooper-Woolley powered over for the bonus point try on 56 minutes.
Ulster’s performance was summed up in two passages of play. Johnny McPhillips attempted a chip to the right wing for Rob Lyttle to chase. The chip was too long and allowed Willie Le Roux to remove the ball from the field of play to end the game. Ulster went out of the competition with a whimper. Likewise, Andy Warwick knocked the ball forward on his own line after a steal from Henderson at the Wasps lineout.
While a passive defence put Ulster on the back foot, they were just as bad offensively. Wasps restricted Ulster to just six line breaks, with only one making a meaningful incision into the Wasps defence. Ulster often use Stuart McCloskey to hit up on first phase play. He created two of the line breaks by getting his arms free and offloading to Darren Cave. Once Wasps realized Ulster’s attacking pattern, the away side offered virtually nothing. In contrast to Ulster, Wasps’ line speed was quick and, with Ulster’s ball carriers taking the ball on the back foot, the away side were often tackled behind the gain line.
I noted that it would be a superb achievement for Ulster to qualify from a tough group when I penned my preview in August and 62% of you thought that we would not qualify for the next round. Ulster have made progress from last year’s dismal campaign. The victory over Harlequins at the Stoop in testing conditions, while the home wins over La Rochelle and Wasps marked progress. It’s disappointing that Ulster couldn’t capitalize on the great opportunity that they set themselves up with.
Ulster now go in to tough end of season league run where they must stay above Edinburgh, who are only three points behind Ulster if they want to play Champions Cup rugby next season. There’s a two week break before Ulster welcome Southern Kings, to Kingspan Stadium for the first time, for a match where they should record the maximum five points.
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Louis Ludik, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Christian Lealiifano, John Cooney; Kyle McCall, Rory Best, Rodney Ah You, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney. Replacements: Rob Herring, Andy Warwick, Wiehahn Herbst, Matthew Rea, Chris Henry, Dave Shanahan, Johnny McPhillips, Rob Lyttle
It wasn't a great team performance and Ulster were made to rue their mistakes. Stuart McCloskey made two turnovers and 13 tackles while Sean Reidy's try gave Ulster a glimmer of hope. The Kiwi born Irish international made 13 tackles without miss and continues to be one of Ulster's better players this season.
- Kyle McCall
- Rory Best
- Rodney Ah You
- Alan O'Connor
- Kieran Treadwell
- Iain Henderson
- Sean Reidy
- Nick Timoney
- John Cooney
- Christian Lealiifano
- Jacob Stockdale
- Stuart McCloskey
- Darren Cave
- Louis Ludik
- Charles Piutau
- Rob Herring
- Andy Warwick
- Wiehahn Herbst
- Matthew Rea
- Chris Henry
- Dave Shanahan
- Johnny McPhillips
- Rob Lyttle