So it’s done and a home quarter-final duly issued.
, but just as Ulster were admiring their work, we got that 14-point push from the Sharks that jeopardized all the good work the home side did with the clock essentially coming to the province’s aid. It wasn’t so pretty.
Luckily, Dan McFarland’s men had done enough, going 17-0 then 24-7 with superb tries from Michael Lowry, the excellent Stuart McCloskey and James Hume.
But could they have been better after that fourth try? Well, yes, but victory was key and apart from their late collapse Ulster made quite a decent change with McCloskey, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Iain Henderson and Nick Timoney all delivering great performances.
They also defended well, apart from the final minutes, to further support their work in Edinburgh and although there was a palpable sense of frustration with how Ulster finished the contest and how they failed to pass this fourth try, they climbed to second place. the table ahead of today’s key matches.
Now we have to wait and see what they get while the Sharks can only question their profligacy when it mattered.
With so many permutations in play, it was best to keep things as simple as possible, which basically meant just winning this game and therefore crossing the finish line for a home quarter-final.
And the fact that Ulster and the Sharks had that mindset before kick-off action ensured that this final leg of the regular season had something of substance for whoever would have won.
All to play then in this first encounter between the sides with the South Africans bringing together Springbok World Cup winners Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Bongi Mbonambi and Siya Kolisi, while Ulster, of course, had their own to Duane Vermeulen.
With the opening shower having waned, Ulster showed their intention to put the width on the ball from the start after Nick Timoney’s strong run only for Ethan McIlory’s pass to miss Robert Baloucoune and drift forward .
Then McIlroy brought the ball back in his 22 with Michael Lowry’s clearance in touch giving the Sharks a cheap field position, but Vermeulen struck to steal the ball on the bridge of the following attack, as did Timoney – good that he was rather lucky to get the call from Ben Blain – shortly after the next South African attack.
Ulster maintained their attacking pace through Stuart McCloskey who allowed Billy Burns to cross kick McIlroy only for the winger to be pushed into touch near the corner flag.
The first clear scoring chance also went to Ulster after Iain Henderson finished off Jaden Hendrikse, with the penalty past the sticks sent by John Cooney after 16 minutes.
Ulster then had another foray into the 22nd after Baloucoune was knocked through the air by Curwin Bosch and with momentum clearly with them they bagged another quick shot penalty and went into the corner.
Although the move appeared to have run out of steam, the ball was turned wide by Burns and McIlroy went inside and tossed an inside ball to Lowry who passed him. Cooney converted the 26th-minute try and Ulster were 10 points clear.
As the Sharks tried to respond with a strong push into Ulster territory, the home side lost James Hume to an HIA and then shortly after Lowry left – who had been crushed by Werner Kok in the first moments – after also taking a blow to the head.
McIlroy’s strike on the Stewart Moore sub pass with acres of space in front of him and Baloucoune by his side looked lousy, especially as the Sharks then had a shot on goal from long range although Bosch fired wide.
As the half headed towards its end, the Sharks then threw it all in attack, with Am gaining ground, although their presence in Ulster’s 22 ended when Henco Venter was chastised by Timoney and the side local survived to head to hangars 10-0.
Ulster, with the return of Hume, started brightly with Burns making a clean break from a turnover and dangerously kicking the Sharks line although Aphelele Fassi came back first.
A minute later, however, Ulster had their second try with big hands from Iain Henderson and Tom O’Toole putting McCloskey into space and he simply hustled the defenders, Fassi being one of them. , to point under the sticks.
Cooney’s conversion made it 17-0 and then when the Sharks put a penalty in the corner from the restart, Henderson flew in to take the ball and Ulster cleared.
The Sharks’ try and failure to score seemed like hugely important moments.
The Sharks then set up a phased attack and won a penalty under the Ulster posts which saw them opt for a scrum and then they did it again – Ulster now had both Gareth Milasinovich and Eric O’Sullivan – and despite another push, the home side held their ground despite being offsides more than once during their defensive set.
But the Sharks came back and kicked in another penalty from close range before opting to do the same just after the hour mark with newly arrived sub Ntuthuko Mchunu kicked out.
Bosch converted and the South Africans had a window to continue the game although it was closed almost immediately when Burns provided Baloucoune on the right he drew and threw inside to Cooney who at his round, waited for the last tackler before providing James Hume with the assist.
Cooney converted and took Ulster’s lead to 24-7 but with five minutes to go, and off the lineout, Grant Williams broke and Marius Louw dived. Boeta Chamberlain added the extras.
Williams then raced from wide to score, Chamberlain’s conversion cutting the lead to just three points which was over.