MIKE BLAIR’s final game as Edinburgh’s head coach ended in a defeat that summed up his difficult second season at the helm. Inspired at times, wayward at others, the visitors put in a patchy display at the Kingspan that was never going to be enough against an Ulster side who got the win they needed to finish the regular URC season in second place.
After seeing the Stormers beat Benetton earlier in the day, Ulster only needed a four-point win to ensure that second spot, and can now look forward to a home quarter-final in the play-offs – and then a home semi too if they get that far. They fell behind early on to a Darcy Graham try as Edinburgh got off to a flier, but then 25 unanswered points put them firmly in control before a WP Nel touchdown in the dying minutes provided a minor consolation for Blair’s team.
The visitors were forced into two late changes to their squad, with James Lang dropping out of the starting 15 because of illness and back-up scrum-half Ben Vellacott being ruled out by a back injury. Mark Bennett took over at centre from Lang with Charlie Savala coming on to the bench, while Charlie Shiel joined the squad as a replacement for Vellacott.
That bright beginning by the visitors saw Duhan van der Merwe get the first real scoring chance of the game, but his kick ahead was too strong and the ball went dead. The opening score was only delayed, however, as less than a minute later an excellent break by Bennett put Graham in for his ninth try in 12 URC appearances. Emiliano Boffelli added the conversion.
In a bruising battle, both teams had to make two changes in the first 20 minutes or so. Edinburgh’s switches saw Savala replace Cammy Hutchison and Stuart McInally come on for what looks certain to be his last game for Edinburgh in place of Dave Cherry.
Edinburgh kept the pressure up for a time, but the Ulster defence won a couple of big turnovers to avoid going further behind, and then the home pack started to get on top as well. A strong maul got Ulster on the front foot, and when the ball spread wide a 1-2 between wingers Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune ended with Stockdale touching down in the right corner.
John Cooney missed the conversion attempt, but in the last few minutes of the half he put Ulster in front for the first time with a penalty from about 40 metres out. Then, two minutes into time added on, Ulster won a scrum penalty in almost the same position, and the scrum-half was again on target to give his team a four-point lead at the break.
Given that the home team had had a strong wind at their backs in the first half, a 7-11 deficit was nothing to worry about too much for Edinburgh. Even so, given their early domination they might well have scored more than one try, and the worry was that they might not get so many scoring chances in the second 40.
Edinburgh began the second 40 on the front foot, but with barely a minute played Blair Kinghorn floated a pass out wide, and Cooney intercepted then ran in from just inside the visitors’ half. Cooney converted too, and his team were 18-7 ahead.
WP Nel had come on at the break for Luan de Bruin and his scrummaging prowess helped Edinburgh get on top in the set-piece, but mistakes in open play tended to undo the good work in the tight. The attritional struggle was beginning to tell on both sides, but a slower tempo suited the team in the lead.
A well-judged kick to the corner by Shiel led to an attack in which van der Merwe and Graham combined threateningly, but another slack pass ended the chance.
Ulster were still on top as the game went into the last quarter, and Glen Young was sent to the sin=bin for a cynical infringement as the pressure began to tell on the Edinburgh defence. The home team tapped and went from less than 10 metres out, and eventually Nick Timoney finished off. Cooney chipped over the conversion to make it 25-7.
With time running out, McInally nearly laid on a try for van der Merwe after a burst that was reminiscent of his celebrated 2019 score at Twickenham, but the winger failed to hold the low pass delivered by the hooker as he was tackled just short of the line by Kieran Treadwell. Then Savala touched down, but the score was chalked off for a knock-on as Jamie Ritchie had juggled the ball without being in control of it.
Edinburgh got a consolation at last when Nel scored from close range, and Boffelli added the two points. Fittingly, however, the last word went to man of the match Cooney, who added a third penalty two mins from time, from 30 metres out in front of the posts.
The scrum-half, who could switch international allegiance from Ireland to Scotland in time for this year’s World Cup, said Ulster would need to up their game again in the play-offs. “We had to win – we knew four points would be enough and we said at half-time that we could do better,” he said after his personal tally of 18 points.
“We need to be better again – I think we’ve got another level and we need to bring it. A home quarter-final is huge. It’s cliched, but we try not to look past the next game.”
That next game for Ulster is in a couple of weeks. Edinburgh have to wait several months for theirs at the end of a campaign that will see them finish in 12th, 13th or 14th place in the 16-team table depending on how results over the rest of this weekend go.
Ulster: M Lowry (L Marshall 13, H Sheridan 70); R Baloucoune (N Doak 41), J Hume (C Gilroy 16), S Moore, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick (C Reid 72), R Herring (T Stewart 27), J Toomaga-Allen (G Milasinovich 63), A O’Connor (captain, S Carter 57), K Treadwell, D McCann, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Edinburgh: E Boffelli; D Graham, M Bennett (N Sweeney 63), C Hutchison (C Savala 15), D van der Merwe; B Kinghorn, H Pyrgos (C Shiel 50-62, 71); P Schoeman (B Venter 63), D Cherry (S McInally 23), L de Bruin (W Nel 41), G Young, S Skinner, J Ritchie (captain), H Watson (C Boyle 72), V Mata (P Phillips 67).
Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy).
Ulster: Tries: Stockdale, Cooney, Timoney; Cons: Cooney 2. Pens: Cooney 3.
Edinburgh: Tries: Graham, Nel; Cons: Boffelli 2.
Scoring sequence (Ulster first): 0-5; 0-7; 5-7; 8-7; 11-7 (h-t)16-7; 18-7; 23-7; 25-7; 25-12; 25-14; 28-14.
Yellow card –
Edinburgh: Young (64 mins)