Teams sometimes unearth the best of themselves in times of adversity and that certainly proved the case with Ulster last night.
The club has been under the public microscope for all the wrong reasons in recent months – they have lost their last three league matches – but they played with a freedom and abandon last night that suggests the healing process has already started.
There wasn’t much between the two teams but Ulster enjoyed a purple patch in the first half, scoring three tries in 14 minutes, catching Edinburgh’s defence cold, and another at the death.
Edinburgh rallied, sparked by Duncan Weir’s try, fighting back from 19-6 down to 22-20 where they stalled. The home side didn’t do enough to take the points and their place in the play-offs remains agonisingly in the balance.
“It was disappointing all round,” said Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill after the match. “The tries we conceded at the start were pretty poor.”
Weir opened the scoring for the home team with a ninth-minute penalty that settled a few nerves, which were quickly on edge again when Ulster grabbed the opening try just two minutes later. Ulster lock Iain Henderson rose high at an attacking lineout after Phil Burleigh kicked straight out, visiting full-back Charles Piutau entered the line and held Dougie Fife’s tackle at bay long enough to persuade his opposite number Blair Kinghorn to jam in when he should have been marking Jacob Stockdale. The big winger, with Darren Cave supporting, had a two-on-one and the player of the Six Nations made no mistake.
Just eight minutes later, Ulster landed another body blow on Edinburgh. This time from a training pitch move that saw white shirts flood to the right-hand side and ended up with Kinghorn having zero chance of stopping Piutau in full flight five metres from the home try line. In between the two Ulster tries, Weir kicked a second penalty for Edinburgh and the 12-6 scoreline flattered the home team, whose defence was being shredded almost at will by the visitors.
Sure enough, just minutes later, Stockdale came off his wing to take the ball in the midfield and one simple inside pass to scrum-half John Cooney saw the little nine scampering between the sticks. In just one illustration of the difference in hunger between these two teams, Stockdale chased an Ulster kick heading for touch but never quite getting there. The Ulster winger jumped and slapped the ball back infield to supporting players while Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Fife both stood and watched him do it.
Trailing by 19-6, Edinburgh needed the next score and they got it thanks to stand-off Weir, who honed his poaching skills against Connacht. He made a brilliant interception from Cooney’s belaboured pass last night and the little ten, departing in the summer, then displayed pace no one suspected in beating Piutau to the Ulster line and, with the extras banked, Edinburgh were alive and kicking at 19-13.
They could have taken an unexpected, and wholly undeserved lead but for Kinghorn overcooking his kick ahead when it looked like the leggy full-back couldn’t help but score.
The tone of the match changed and, with the help of twin lineout steals, Edinburgh finished much the stronger.
They started the second half in much the same vein, pummelling Ulster in the set scrum to earn two turnovers only for Ben Toolis to gift Ulster an easy three. Edinburgh earned a penalty under Ulster’s posts, opted for the set scrum instead and Cockerill threw on four fresh forwards to help seal the deal and Nigel Owens awarded a penalty try at only the second time of asking to narrow the gap to two points with 20 minutes left to decide this game.
Cooney extended Ulster’s advantage to five points with a 64th-minute penalty after Jamie Richie performed miracles in getting back to halt Cave only to strip the ball in the tackle and pay the price. It wasn’t much of a cushion but it proved enough last night.
Appropriately enough, Henderson had the last say, the big lock going over from short range one minute from time to grab Ulster a bonus point and deny Edinburgh the same.