London now calling for Ulster


Ulster 22 Edinburgh 19:Ulster are heading for the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham on Saturday, May 19th, hoping to bridge a 13-year-gap and record a second European triumph. They won’t dwell unduly on the aesthetics of their semi-final triumph at the Aviva stadium. Victory in a knockout tournament tends to gloss over any shortcomings in terms of performance, at least in the immediate aftermath.

It was nervous, edgy at times, and littered with mistakes, but the primary arbiter of success is victory. They’ll have to improve hugely in the final but that’s for another day.

The Irish province won this contest because their scrum was utterly dominant. They absolutely mangled Edinburgh at scrum-time and it proved a lucrative revenue stream in terms of points. It also provided the platform for Pedrie Wannenburg’s try on 15 minutes.

Ulster tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick deserves a lot of credit, along with the rest of the pack, for his 65 minutes of toil in just his second outing back after a five month spell on the sidelines with injury. Edinburgh will wonder how they lost this match given their dominance of territory and possession. The answer is simple: handling errors and poor execution cost them dearly.

Replacement wing Jim Thompson’s injury time try came too late to offer anything more substantial than window dressing in terms of the scoreboard. Greig Laidlaw kicked superbly, Mike Blair a lively presence at scrumhalf but unfortunately for the Scottish side, they lacked composure to deliver on good approach work.

Ulster scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar enjoyed a brilliant afternoon with the boot but his general play was on an equal footing. He was outstanding. Stephen Ferris led the way in defence. Paddy Wallace tidied up ball, providing a little impetus when Ulster were crabbing sideways and Darren Cave was assured in defence.

It was a fine team effort and although the game was pockmarked by a high error-rate from both sides, it won’t detract from Ulster’s enjoyment of the evening. They started brightly enough but gradually an uncertainty and conservatism crept into their play. They gave the ball away too cheaply and ended up having to wait quite a long time in getting it back. The Scottish side made the greater headway in terms of field position and possession in the first half.

Edinburgh players also demonstrated good feet going into contact, finding several soft shoulders in an Ulster defensive line that was generally far too passive during those opening 40 minutes, several players being guilty of going too high and subsequently bounced in the tackle.

It gave the Scottish franchise easy momentum, front foot ball and continuity in terms of territory and possession. Ulster were guilty of some poor lapses on the fringes of rucks, gaps which Mike Blair exploited well on a couple of occasions.

Edinburgh might well have led at the interval had they not butchered a couple of gilt embossed chances close to the Ulster line. Twice in a six minute spell they took play to within a couple of metres of their opponent’s line and on both occasions loosened the pressure valve themselves with a brace of knocks-on. They compounded the latter one by then conceding a silly penalty for going over the top at a ruck when the Irish province was again under the shadow of their own posts.

At this point Ulster were down to 14 men having lost fullback Stefan Terblanche to a yellow card. Edinburgh hooker Ross Ford had the former Springbok in a headlock at a ruck and the latter tried to extricate himself forcefully. The touch judge took umbrage to Terblanche’s swinging arm and he was sent to the sin bin on 28 minutes. Did the incident merit a yellow card? Absolutely not.

It wasn’t the only contentious decision of the half but then these days the referee is becoming a more obtrusive presence in matches. Romain Poite was allowing a contest for the ball on the ground and Edinburgh definitely won that one over the opening 40 minutes, executing a handful or turnovers.

Ulster really missed Chris Henry’s physicality at the breakdown and also his tackling ability as Willie Faloon struggled, missing three tackles and not enjoying his usual impact at ruck-time. He wasn’t alone. Too many Ulster players were falling off tackles and if Edinburgh had a scintilla more composure and better execution they could have bagged a couple of tries.

As it was the Irish province grabbed the only one of the half on 15 minutes when the Ulster eight took their Edinburgh counterparts for a short walk allowing number eight Pedrie Wannenburg to plunge over. Pienaar posted the conversion have earlier kicked a mammoth penalty from a foot inside the Edinburgh half.

At 10-6 – Laidlaw had landed kicked two penalties – Ulster would have expected to kick on but Terblanche’s yellow card and Edinburgh’s continued dominance of territory and possession gave the Irish side very little latitude.

Edinburgh wing Lee Jones was adjudged offside in chasing a Laidlaw punt, Pienaar kicked the penalty but then the Irish province handed back the points in first half injury time when Ferris was penalised for knocking the ball from scrumhalf Mike Blair’s hands.

Laidlaw’s sweet rhythm with the placed ball continued and he edged Edinburgh closer with his fourth successful penalty five minutes after the re-start to make it 13-12. Darren Cave couldn’t find Andrew Trimble with a long pass, although he might wonder why Terblanche didn’t offer him an option, the South African trailing behind the play a little as Ulster swept the ball wide.

Pienaar’s great grubber kick and follow up tackle gave his side field position eight metres from the Edinburgh line. From the first lineout the Scottish conceded a penalty and Ulster captain Johann Muller elected to go to the corner.

Edinburgh stopped the Ulster maul but from the ensuing scrum the Scots were penalised again as the Irish province emphasised their dominance. Muller opted for a scrum and after several phases it appeared that Ulster must score following a great rumble from Dan Tuohy. However having recycled quickly, Wannenburg’s lunge for the line was not only halted but Laidlaw managed to pinch the ball as part of a three-man tackle.

It proved a brief respite for Edinburgh as even though they managed to escape their 22, they conceded another penalty as they were marched back at a scrum and Pienaar made no mistake from 26 metres. The South African’s game management was just as impressive, turning Edinburgh round with box-kicks and then beautifully judged punts. His fourth successful penalty, on 62 minutes, from close to the left touchline was a wonderfully judged strike that defied a capricious wind. That edged Ulster out to 19-12.

Edinburgh continued to harvest possession but handling errors, leading to turnovers – Ross Ford spilled one in the Ulster 22 – allowed the Irish province to counter-attack. Craig Gilroy rounded Jones down one touchline and when the ball was recycled Ferris was dragged into touch by Tim Visser on the other side of the pitch.

As the game entered the final 10 minutes the majority of the 45,147 attendance – certainly those supporting Ulster – won’t have cared one whit about the generally substandard fare. Cave put in a thunderous tackle on Thompson that brought an emphatic end to an Edinburgh counter-attack, when it looked that they could sweep down field.

Edinburgh inevitably threw in another handling error and from the scrum, Ulster forced another penalty. Pienaar unerringly bisected the posts with his fifth penalty and sixth successful kick at goal; London was indeed calling, despite replacement wing Thompson’s injury time try after a great break from Netani Talei.

Scoring sequence
5 mins:Pienaar penalty, 3-0; 8 mins: Laidlaw penalty, 3-3; 11 mins:Laidlaw penalty, 3-6; 15 mins:Wannenburg try, Pienaar conversion, 10-6; 38 mins:Pienaar penalty, 13-6; 40 mins (+1):Laidlaw penalty, 13-9. Half-time:13-9. 45 mins:Laidlaw penalty, 13-12; 58 mins:Pienaar penalty, 16-12; 62 mins:Pienaar penalty, 19-12; 75 mins:Pienaar penalty, 22-12. 80 mins:Thompson try, Laidlaw penalty, 22-19.

Ulster:S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; S Ferris, W Faloon, P Wannenburg. Replacements:A Macklin for Fitzpatrick 65 mins; R Diack for Faloon 73 mins; P McAllister for Court 77 mins; L Stevenson for Ferris 77 mins.

Edinburgh:T Brown; L Jones, N De Luca, M Scott, T Visser; G Laidlaw (capt), M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross; G Gilchrist, S Cox; D Denton, R Rennie, N Talei. Replacements:R Grant for Rennie 56 mins; J Thompson for Jones 70 mins; J Gilding for Cross 73 mins; K Traynor for Jacobsen 77 mins; S Turnbull for Gilchrist 77 mins.

Referee:Romain Poite (France)