ULSTER kept themselves firmly in contention for the RaboDirect PRO12 play-offs tonight but they and hosts Edinburgh produced an instantly forgettable match somehow fitting for an ugly Murrayfield pitch now ripped up.
SCORERS: Edinburgh - Bezuidenhout pen; Ulster - Jackson 3 pens
The Scots had started well and looked the more dynamic in spells throughout the game but Ulster came with a tight game-plan and delivered another lesson in how to play conditions, and the referee, to your advantage, and do just enough for victory. A penalty count of 16-4 in the Ulstermen’s favour tells its own story. Edinburgh lock Grant Gilchrist set the tone with a marauding run into the Ulster 22 in the opening minutes but, despite a good period of pressure, the hosts could not breach the Ulster line.
It happened again and again in the first quarter as Ulster survived and kicked downfield while Edinburgh built attacks with patience and composure.
A neat take of a long kick by Cornell du Preez, the South Africa flanker showing confident handling and running skills as he took the attack back into the visitors’ half, brought a penalty that Edinburgh stand-off Carl Bezuidenhout converted from the halfway line with 16 minutes played. The rain stepped up its intensity, driving hard on to the heads of the players, and Ulster suffered when they lost their Ireland lock Iain Henderson to the sin-bin after 19 minutes for a dangerous tackle on Mike Coman.
Bezuidenhout was not as accurate from the right touchline in weather that he may not be as familiar with in South Africa, and the chance for more points was missed, but as Ulster continued to kick the leather off the ball and find Edinburgh up for the challenge – Jack Cuthbert continuing from where he left off before joining the Scotland squad last week with secure takes – there was little threat to the home half.
A penalty allowed Ulster to kick to touch on the 22 as the game moved into the second quarter, delighting their voluble support, and that led to a penalty at the subsequent driving maul that Paddy Jackson turned into a levelling three points in the 25th minute. Ulster used that as a launchpad, welcoming lock Henderson back and going on to take the edge in the forward exchanges to earn another penalty for forcing the home scrum up, which Jackson kicked to put Ulster 6-3 ahead four minutes before the interval.
Du Preez put a decent kick downfield that forced Ulster full-back Jared Payne into a hasty clearance to touch, but, again, despite good possession and a series of attacks to finish the half, Edinburgh lacked the precision and wit to pierce the resolute Irish defence.
Jackson continued his merry way seven minutes into the second half by turning another scrum penalty into another three points. Edinburgh continued where they left off by forcing the pace, du Preez, skipper Mike Coman and Grant Gilchrist to the fore, but there was a horrible familiarity when Irish referee John Lacey blew his whistle at ruck-time and his arm fell towards Ulster.
There was growing dubiety when an Edinburgh counter-attack had Ulster scampering and down in numbers chasing back to their own 22, three Edinburgh players striving to rip ball back from two prone defenders, and they were penalised, and then a superb turnover by the home pack and drive of Ulster back 20 metres resulted in a scrum to the Irishmen when the ball was not forthcoming. But, in truth, Edinburgh’s inaccuracy also gave Lacey the opportunity to blow in Ulster’s favour.
The hosts were forced into some back-line reshuffles, with Dougie Fife going off at half-time and the other wing, Tom Brown, going off in the final quarter. He seemed injured, but it might have been the cold that got him, the only obvious difference between him and a spectator on the far side being that he was wearing shorts.
This was not a poor Ulster side. Full of internationalists, headed by their magnificent lock and captain Johann Muller, their superiority was clear. But in the conditions and on the notoriously poor surface they had decided to keep rugby to a minimum. They earned that right by taking a 9-3 lead into the final 20 minutes and strived then to turn the screw with a tight, one-out style of attack, kicking deep and ignoring the wings. It made for a hugely dull game of rugby with no remote possibility that Ulster, whose scrum was dominant, would secure a bonus point to take top spot in the league. Edinburgh finished the game as they had started it – attacking deep into the Ulster half with promising drives, off-loading, tons of effort and moving the point of attack, but Lacey’s whistle punctured each moment of hope for home supporters of a comeback and some sliver of reward for parting with their money on a chill Friday night.
Murrayfield echoed to the strains of Orange Juice’s ‘Rip it up … and start again’ as supporters descended on this pitch for the final time. Fitting.
Edinburgh: J Cuthbert; D Fife, S Beard, A Strauss, T Brown; C Bezuidenhout, G Hart; W Blaauw, R Ford, W Nel, G Gilchrist, I van der Westhuizen, M Coman (capt), R Grant, C du Preez. Subs: N de Luca for Fife 40mins, T Leonardi for Coman 55, H Leonard for Brown 68, E McQuillin for Nel, S Kennedy for Beard, both 77.
Ulster: T Bowe, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, M Heaney; T Court, R Herring, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), I Henderson, S Ferris, S Doyle, R Wilson. Subs: R Diack for Ferris 40mins, N Williams for Wilson 54, D Tuohy for Doyle, P Marshall for Heaney, both 62, R Lutton for Afoa 77.