EDINBURGH’s wait to confirm their place in the PRO14 play-offs must go on for at least another week after Ulster kept their own hopes alive with a hard-fought but deserved win. It was a more solid display over the piece from Richard Cockerill’s team compared to their error-strewn outing six days earlier in the Challenge Cup against Cardiff, but defensive flaws in the first half cost them dearly.
Ulster, for whom defeat would have ended their own play-off hopes, scored three tries before the break, but were only six points up at half-time. The second half was better from Edinburgh, and for a time the outcome was in doubt, but after a spell in which they were on top they faded towards the end.
The five-point win means Ulster are now just eight behind Edinburgh in Conference B, with a game in hand. They still have Ospreys and Glasgow to play at home before visiting Munster in their last match, while third-placed Edinburgh are at home to Scarlets next week then the Warriors at the end of the month.
“It’s game on,” Cockerill accepted. “It’s disappointing. We’ve got to learn as a team, and some of our lads have got to step up to the plate and make a better fist of it.
“There’s an eight-point difference, they’ve got three games, we’ve got two, so we’ve got to make sure that we win a game. We can’t rely on other people. I’ve got to get the best out of the lads next week.
“You concede soft points, you get punished, and we conceded soft points. All four of their tries were soft – they were well taken in some ways, but we have to manage those better.
“We can’t make those errors. We’ve got to start looking after the ball a little bit more. We’ve got to start maturing a little bit there, but the only way to do that is to play in these games.”
Duncan Weir opened the scoring with a 10th-minute penalty from the edge of the 22, but Ulster hit back within two minutes. Charles Piutau broke the first line of defence with an offload to Jacob Stockdale, and the Six Nations player of the tournament drew the last man before putting Darren Cave in for a try which John Cooney converted.
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A second Weir penalty from an almost identical spot took Edinburgh back to within a single point, but midway through the half Ulster scored again, with Piutau this time finishing it off. A penalty to touch had given the province good position, and too many Edinburgh defenders were drawn into defending against the subsequent lineout, leaving Ulster with men over on the right.
The ease with which the unconverted try had been scored was ominous, especially when contrasted with Edinburgh’s inability to show similar incisiveness, and the outlook worsened for the home team when Cooney grabbed the third. Stockdale was the one to break through the defence this time, coming into the midfield following a lineout, and his pass gave the scrum-half an easy run to the line. Cooney converted his own score to put his team 19-6 up.
Edinburgh needed to hit back quickly, and they did after half an hour when Weir picked off a slack pass off the back of an Ulster lineout. The stand-off had more than half of the field to run, but he got there just as the defence closed in, and had the energy left to get back to his feet and add the two points.
The leeway might soon have narrowed further when a Stuart McInally turnover set up a counter-attack for Blair Kinghorn, but, lacking support, the full-back kicked too far ahead and the ball went dead. Still, a 13-19 deficit to take into the second half was not at all a bad position given how easily those three tries had been leaked, and there were further encouraging signs immediately after the interval when the Edinburgh scrum twice got a decent push on.
It was Ulster who scored first in the second period, however, with Cooney adding a penalty to his tally from a simple position. Edinburgh could have replied in the same fashion when Ulster were penalised in front of their own posts, but they opted for a five-metre scrum instead. Two more offences went the same way as the home side maintained their upper hand in the set piece, and at the fourth time of asking, as the push collapsed right on the line, Nigel Owens awarded the penalty try.
An increasingly tense contest was back in the balance as the game went into its last quarter, but Ulster soon had the lead up to five points after the referee harshly penalised Jamie Ritchie for what looked like a perfectly fair strip in the tackle. That deficit was no great worry as long as Edinburgh could get the ball back into the opposition half – and ideally be awarded a scrum or two once they got there.
But Ulster did an excellent job of dictating the tempo in the game’s final stages, played mostly in Edinburgh territory, and claimed the bonus-point try two minutes from time when Ian Henderson forced his way over from close range. The score also denied Cockerill’s team a losing bonus – a factor which might just come into play during the closing weeks of the regular season.
Edinburgh: B Kinghorn; D Fife, M Bennett, P Burleigh, D van der Merwe; D Weir, S Hidalgo-Clyne; J Lay, S McInally, S Berghan, B Toolis, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, J Ritchie, W Mata. Subs: N Cochrane, R Sutherland, W Nel, L Carmichael, C du Preez, S Kennedy, J van der Walt, C Dean.
Ulster: C Piutau; L Ludik, D Cave, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Best, T O’Toole, M Dalton, I Henderson, M Rea, N Timoney, J Deysel. Subs: R Herring, T O’Hagen, R Ah You, A O’Connor, S Reidy, D Shanahan, A Curtis, T Bowe.
Scorers: Edinburgh: Try: Weir, penalty try. Con: Weir. Pens: Weir 2.
Ulster: Tries: Cave, Piutau, Cooney, Henderson. Cons: Cooney 3. Pens: Cooney 2.
Scoring sequence: 3-0, 3-5, 3-7, 6-7, 6-12, 6-17, 6-19, 11-19, 13-19 half-time, 13-22, 20-22, 20-25, 20-30, 20-32.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
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