Leicester roar back to bring an end to Ulster’s European dream
Province left to rue mistakes as they lose it from behind in Welford Road semi-final
Ellis Genge celebrates scoring a crucial try against Ulster. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Leicester Tigers 33 Ulster 24
Ulster were left to rue a second half collapse in which they conceded 27 points for a gut-wrenching defeat in an entertaining European Challenge Cup semi-final at Welford Road. Dan McFarland’s side led 17-6 at the interval but were blown away by a rampant Tigers side after the restart.
The visitors will reflect on errors and indiscipline that undermined their efforts but ultimately there was no disputing the merit of Leicester’s win fired by man of the match George Ford, whose vision and range of passing was a key element, and Nemani Nadolo’s raw power and ability to attract multiple tacklers.
There will be little personal consolation but Jacob Stockdale will have impressed watching Lions coaches Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy, while Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Rob Herring, John Cooney prior to his injury and especially Nick Timoney can be proud of their respective contributions.
George Ford and John Cooney exchanged early penalties, the teams employing different strategies in possession early on with the Tigers looking for territory through the boot while Ulster preferred to carry into contact, all the while looking for space with several inside passes.
Ulster thought they had scored the first try of the match through Robert Baloucoune on 12 minutes but it was correctly disallowed as Timoney knocked on in contact in the build-up. The visitors playing with a penalty advantage elected to kick to the corner.
Leicester conceded two more in quick succession and lost captain Tom Youngs to a yellow card and when they infringed on the double again referee Pascal Gauzere should have sent a second Leicester player to the bin but instead gave stand-in skipper George Ford a general warning.
Ulster did finally get the reward, Rob Herring took a quick tap penalty, Iain Henderson did superbly to stay on his feet through the initial contact, allowing his support players to latch on and drive him over the line. Cooney added the conversion.
Despite conceding a penalty which Ford landed from long range, Ulster responded positively with a second try scored by outhalf Billy Burns; Ethan McIlroy’s gorgeous footwork a rapier like incision to supplement the bludgeoning power of their big carriers, especially Stuart McCloskey. The visitors had piled on 14 points in Tom Youngs’ absence to lead 17-6.
The Tigers had a gilt edged opportunity to reduce the deficit having won a scrum penalty five metres from the Ulster line but when they elected to scrum again, it was the home side that was adjudged to have transgressed this time. It was a huge moment for the visitors and they escaped to the interval with an 11 point lead.
Ulster lost Cooney following a collision from Nadolo and the Tigers scored a try 60 seconds later through Jasper Wiese, which Ford converted and then tagged on a penalty to claw back to within a point at 17-16. The half-time team talk and the decision to freshen the pack with three replacements had the desired effect but the visitors were culpable too with several unforced errors.
The home side took the lead with a try from Ellis Genge on 53 minutes; Ford kicked the conversion and then tagged on a drop goal as Ulster’s energy and cohesion dissipated. Nadolo’s power epitomised Leicester’s post interval ascendancy and the visitors would have been grateful to see him depart on 61 minutes.
To their credit, Ulster dug out a response on 67 minutes, Timoney racing 40 metres for a brilliant individual try with replacement Michael Lowry adding a superb conversion. Little mistakes continued to haunt Ulster and it cost them dearly Guy Porter effectively sealing the outcome - Ford’s conversion important - with five minutes remaining.
Scoring sequence - 6 mins: Ford penalty, 3-0; 9: Cooney penalty, 3-3; 15: Henderson try, Cooney conversion, 3-10; 19: Ford penalty, 6-10; 21: Burns try, Cooney conversion, 6-17. Half-time: 6-17. 44: Wiese try, Ford conversion, 13-17; 53: Genge try, Ford conversion, 23-17; 58: Ford drop goal, 26-17; 67: Timoney try, Lowry conversion, 26-24; 75: Porter try, Ford conversion, 33-24.
Leicester Tigers: F Steward; G Porter, M Moroni, M Scott, N Nadolo; G Ford, R Wigglesworth; E Genge, T Youngs (capt), D Cole; H Wells, C Green; G Martin, H Liebenberg, J Wiese. Replacements: C Clare for T Youngs half-time; J Heyes for Cole half-time; C Brink for Martin half-time; B Youngs for Wigglesworth 45 mins; K Murimurivalu for Nadolo 61 mins; L de Bruin for Genge 65 mins; T Lavanini for Wells 66 mins. Yellow card: T Youngs (Leicester) 14 mins.
Ulster: J Stockdale; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O’Connor, I Henderson (capt); M Rea, J Murphy, N Timoney. Replacements: S Reidy for Rea (HIA) 37 mins-halftime and 55 mins; A Mathewson for Cooney (HIA) 43 mins; W Addison for Baloucoune 55 mins; K Treadwell for O’Connor 59 mins; M Lowry for Burns 66 mins; A Warwick for O’Sullivan 70 mins; T O’Toole for Moore 70 mins; J Andrew for Herring 79 mins.
Referee: P Gauzere (France).