STUART BATHGATE @ BT Murrayfield
EDINBURGH’s hopes of reaching the PRO14 play-off series hang by a thread after a desperately disappointing defeat by Ulster, who deservedly claimed second place in Conference B with a fierce and focused performance.
The loss means that Edinburgh stay on 51 points, one behind Benetton, who lost 28-37 to Munster. Richard Cockerill’s side now have to get a better result in their final regular-season game, at Glasgow in a fortnight, than Benetton get against Zebre. If they fail to do that, they could still face a different kind of play-off – the one between the fourth-placed teams from the two conferences for the last place in next season’s Champions Cup – although to do that they have to stay ahead of Scarlets.
“I was just disappointed at how we played,” Cockerill said. “When the big moments came up we weren’t good enough. We were beaten in every department.
“When you play good sides they do good things and create and take opportunities. All the tries we conceded were pretty soft. We’re normally tougher to play against, but in that first half we didn’t control field position, we missed kicks to touch.
“We just did not function. Ultimately on what was a big occasion we did not perform. That is the fact of it.”
It was clear from the early stages that the home team were going to be in for a difficult evening against opponents who looked more confident and determined from the off. A penalty from scrum-half John Cooney gave Ulster a fifth-minute lead after a move featuring a promising half-break by Stuart McCloskey had been ended illegally, and although tighthead Marty Moore had to be helped off with a leg injury, the Irish province were soon further ahead thanks to a Jordi Murphy try awarded after a TMO review. The ball had gone forward from Nick Timoney, but the ruling was that it had been ripped in the tackle by Grant Gilchrist, so Murphy was not offside.
Given the difficult position from which Edinburgh had had to extricate themselves last week against Scarlets because of a sluggish first-half performance, it was surprising to see them repeat the felony. At least going 10-0 down appeared to have a galvanising effect on them, but when their first real chance to score presented itself, Jaco van der Walt crashed a penalty back off a post. The stand-off also failed to find touch with a penalty from deep within his own half, although he seemed unlucky just before that when a chip through ended in an Ulster 22 even though it sounded like it had come off a defender and should therefore have been a scrum five.
Continuing to play with purpose and passion, Ulster were within metres of a second try, only to be denied by some excellent last-ditch defence from WP Nel. Again, however, Van der Walt was unable to reach touch with the penalty, allowing the visitors to counter-attack immediately.
It was the stand-off’s last action of the game, as, clutching his right shoulder, he went off and was replaced by Simon Hickey – whose first significant contribution was to kick out on the full. That hapless moment typified Edinburgh’s first-half display, and things went from bad to worse in the final seconds of the half when winger Robert Baloucoune scored Ulster’s second try with a fine finish, evading the poorly-positioned Darcy Graham then diving over the line.
The conversion was missed, but a 15-0 deficit was clearly going to require a superhuman effort to overcome. Edinburgh had fought back from a dozen points down against Scarlets, but Ulster were in far more formidable form than the Welsh team, as they showed with some resolute defence in the opening stages of the second half.
John Barclay came on for Magnus Bradbury with half an hour to play as Edinburgh continued to batter away in search of a break that would give them a foothold in the game, but they were then hit by a killer blow. Jacob Stockdale made valuable ground up the left, and then Rob Lyttle showed immense power and energy to finish off close to the left corner.
Cooney’s conversion took Ulster more than three full scores clear, but within minutes Barclay sparked new hope into his team with a clever try from a Hamish Watson pass, calmly selling the defence a dummy before coasting over. Hickey converted, and as the game went into its final quarter the home support dared to dream.
Ulster were in no mood to indulge them, however, and gave as good as they got in the latter stages. Ross Ford came on for what may well have been his farewell home game, but that was no more than a brief bright spot towards the end of a gloomy evening for his team, and Ulster had the last word when Billy Burns went over for the bonus-point try two minutes from time.
Edinburgh: D Graham; D Hoyland (G Taylor 45), M Bennett, M Scott, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt (S Hickey 32), H Pyrgos (C Shiel 64); P Schoeman (A Dell 63), S McInally (R Ford 66), W Nel (S Berghan 46), B Toolis (C Hunter-Hill 66), G Gilchrist, M Bradbury (J Barclay 50), H Watson, V Mata.
Ulster: J Stockdale; R Baloucoune (A Kernohan 50), L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; W Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan (A Warwick 73), R Herring, M Moore (R Kane 10), I Henderson, K Treadwell (A O’Connor 62), N Timoney (S Reidy 67), J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Edinburgh: Try: Barclay. Con: Hickey.
Ulster: Tries: Murphy, Baloucoune, Lyttle, Burns. Cons: Cooney 3. Pen: Cooney.
Scoring sequence (Edinburgh first): 0-3, 0-8, 0-10, 0-15 half-time, 0-20, 0-22, 5-22, 7-22, 7-27, 7-29.