DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield
EDINBURGH’S PRO14 season hit the buffers with shuddering ferocity here, when a last-minute Ian Madigan penalty put Ulster ahead for the first time in the match and booked a Grand Final appointment for the Northern Irishmen against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin next weekend.
It is a sickening setback for Richard Cockerill’s team, who had taken a 13th minute lead through skipper Stuart McInally and looked composed and robust throughout the remainder of the first half, despite several long periods defending near their own line.
The second half got off to a flyer for the home team when Darcy Graham scampered over and Jaco van der Walt converted to make it 12-0, but they then started to lose their grip on the contest – despite a third try from Chris Dean – and they will know that they have nobody to blame for this heartbreaking conclusion to their league season but themselves.
Edinburgh still have a European Challenge Cup quarter-final against Bordeaux-Begles to look forward to on 19th September. Cockerill is going to have his work cut-out resurrecting morale and confidence during the next two weeks. This was the fourth knock-out match on the bounce the team has lost under the head coach.
Duhan van der Merwe had five gallops in the opening 10 minutes, and he was involved a couple of times in the long passage of play which took Edinburgh deep into Ulster territory, ultimately culminating in skipper McInally bursting from the back of a line-out maul and bouncing John Cooney on his way to the line.
Cockerill said on a few occasions during the build-up to this game that discipline would be key to the outcome, and three penalties conceded in quick succession straight after that opening try certainly didn’t do his team an favours, but their defence held out and they managed to escape their own five metre line after a Billy Burns knock-on.
Van der Merwe was involved again when Edinburgh threatened for the first time since the try just before half-time, with the Scots-qualified South African collecting a flat pass from Dean and making good yards down the left touchline, and they really should have extended their lead when a perfectly timed pass out of contact by Jaco van der Walt released Dean, but the centre failed to release the support runners on either side and ended up getting penalised for holding onto the ball on the deck.
Edinburgh stretched further ahead after six minutes of the second half when van der Walt looped Dean and then sent Graham scampering over on the right, but Ulster bounced back when a long period of continuity play finally opened up an opportunity on the right and Rob Lyttle stepped inside three frantically covering defenders to dot down under the posts.
If Edinburgh were flustered at this point, they didn’t let it show, and they struck right back in emphatic style with some big carries amongst the forwards, leading to Hamish Watson sending Dean in for the try.
But Ulster now had the bit between their teeth and, aided by Edinburgh failing to clear their lines from the kick-off, they scored again through hooker Rob Herring off the back of a line-out drive, and then with just five minutes to go, replacement hooker John Andrew did something very similar, leaving Madigan with a touchline conversion which he fired home to square the contest.
Edinburgh’s unravelling reached a conclusion which had become increasingly inevitable during the course of the final quarter when they coughed up possession again and then gave away a long range penalty opportunity for Madigan when Mike Willemse went for the interception but ended up knocking on, and the TMO called it as deliberate. The shot at goal was long and true, prompting ecstatic celebrations for the visitors and inconsolable dejection for the hosts.
Edinburgh: B Kinghorn; D Graham, M Bennett, C Dean (G Taylor 59), D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, N Groom (C Shiel 77); R Sutherland (P Schoeman 52), S McInally (M Willemse 69), W Nel (S Berghan 47), B Toolis (A Davidson 69), G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, H Watson, V Mata (J Ritchie 64).
Ulster: J Stockdale; L Ludik (M Lowry 40), J Hume, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns (I Madigan 77), J Cooney (A Mathewson 40); E O’Sullivan (J McGrath 47), R Herring (J Andrew 70), T O’Toole (M Moore 47), A O’Connor, S Carter, M Rea, J Murphy (S Reidy 47), M Coetzee.
Referee: Frank Murphy
Edinburgh: Tries: McInally, Graham, Dean; Con: van der Walt.
Ulster: Trie: Lyttle, Herring, Andrew; Con: Burns, Madigan; Pen: Madigan.
Scoring sequence (Edinburgh first): 5-0 (h-t) 10-0; 12-0; 12-5; 12-7; 17-7; 19-7; 19-12; 19-14; 19-19; 19-22.