It was a night when the action spoke louder than all the politics that threaten yet to wash the Heineken Cup into oblivion. And a shudderingly engaging contest was settled not by an Irish star, Rabo-rested in order to hit a peak here, but by a universal soldier.
Ruan Pienaar is one of so many imports who populate the European rugby scene. The South African is of the genus of well-paid workhorses who churn out the performances while the homegrown European elite are managed according to the demands of national coaches, a bone of contention in its own right when it comes to deciding who plays when.
Pienaar was a marvel, landing five penalties from five attempts, plus the conversion of his own try.
He kicked just as accurately out of hand. In fact, there was not one aspect of play at which he did not excel, the possible exception being when he set off in pursuit of the very large Graham Kitchener, only to find the gap between himself and the secondrow forward opening up alarmingly.
Kitchener had what might be called a bit of a game himself, soaring at the lineout and charging around like a wing (he’s big enough to play there), and his departure not long after half-time could have had a severe impact on his side’s chances were it not for the fact that Leicester were about to open up a 10-point gap.
Until then it had been Pienaar against Toby Flood. The Leicester captain should have edged his team into the lead before half-time but tugged his fourth attempt wide. A mistake in the solitary glare where the place-kicker must work was hardly surprising given the force of the impacts in the shared workspace.
Level the two teams stood until just after Kitchener's departure. Suddenly Leicester were ahead, their superiority at the scrummage rewarded again with a penalty against Chris Henry for detaching too early.
Flood then took control, his kicking from hand giving Leicester every chance of regaining possession. He threaded a last kick behind Ulster, inviting wing Niall Morris to win a race against outhalf Paddy Jackson. Flood converted the try and Leicester were 10 points clear.
Pienaar upped his involvement. He charged down a kick by Flood, who delayed the fraction required for a controlled clearance to turn it into the gift of a try. Pienaar followed up, scored and converted from the touchline. He then added the penalty that put Ulster into the lead for the first time.
When it mattered, in the muscle-burnt heaving of the late scrums, Ulster unearthed a new drive and positively shoved their way to a home tie in the quarter-finals.
Leicester, dominated in the very facet of play that might have steered them to a home tie of their own, could not rediscover forward gear.
"Best runner-up" still counts as progression into the last eight, but as their pack of eight discovered at the bitter end, sometimes you can feel as if you're going the wrong way. –