Leicester 20-9 Ulster
19th November @ Welford Road
Ulster came away from Welford Road with nothing to show for their efforts after a bruising encounter with Leicester. A strong final quarter from Richard Cockerill’s outfit saw them take the spoils here, denying Ulster a precious bonus point in the process. In a match dominated by defence, Leicester scored the only try and that proved crucial. Despite a brave effort, Ulster failed to break down a physical Leicester side.
In a first half that lacked any clear-cut try-scoring opportunities, it was the two outhalves who featured prominently. Ulster were first on the scoreboard as Ian Humphreys smashed over a penalty from 52 metres out after only two minutes. English international Toby Flood replied for Leicester with a penalty from a similar distance.
Ulster’s early game plan involved sending the likes of Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Pedrie Wannenburg hammering at the Leicester defence but penalty opportunities were all they could muster. Humphreys restored the Ulster lead with another three points off the tee in the 11th minute when Leicester were pinged for playing the ball on the ground after a surge from Ferris. Flood missed his next effort at goal but made up for it soon after, leveling matters after Leicester constructed a decent passage of pressure in the Ulster 22.
However, Ulster hit back almost immediately when Leicester prop Marcos Ayerza went off his feet at ruck time. Humpreys was successful again. Leicester had no intention of letting Ulster settle or build on a lead though and Flood knocked over another penalty after the Tigers got on top of the Ulster scrum after 22 minutes. That was to be the last score before halftime. The majority of the half was played in the middle third of the pitch, with both teams’ defences proving hard to penetrate.
The half finished with excitement for Leicester fans as Matt Smith and captain Geordan Murphy combined to put Alesana Tuilagi into space down the left hand touchline. Tuilagi broke Trimble’s tackle but Humphreys and scrumhalf Paul Marshall combined to drag the Samoan winger into touch.
Leicester took the lead for the first time shortly after the interval when Ulster were again penalised by referee Romain Poite at the scrum. Flood stroked over the penalty for a 12-9 lead. Humphreys had a chance to tie the match once again soon after but he was wide with his effort. Ulster enjoyed a period of sustained possession for much of the next ten minutes with Ferris, Trimble and Gilroy all making efforts to break down the gritty Tigers’ defence. Darren Cave threatened with ball in hand too but Cockerill’s men were disciplined and aggressive, repelling every wave of attack.
With the introduction of Ben Youngs and Martin Castrogiavanni with a quarter of the match left, the tide began to turn in the Tigers’ favour. After Rory Best had won a fantastic relieving penalty in Ulster’s own 22, Humphreys crucially missed his touch. Leicester countered back downfield, and after a typically strong Tuilagi burst up the middle, Flood had time to side foot a grubber through for Matt Smith to run on to. The centre beat the covering Paul Marshall to touch down. Flood was unsuccessful with his conversion attempt.
Ulster came back at the Tigers, bravely searching for a foothold in their 22 and gaps in their defence. But once again, it was in vain as Leicester just kept on tackling. A lineout steal with five minutes to go offered a brief glimmer of hope, but Ayerza burst away from the maul and hacked the ball downfield. Marshall raced back, just beating Youngs to the ball to prevent a clinching score.
That clinching score did come for the Tigers right on the stroke of full time with Flood knocking over another penalty from distance as the Leicester pack emphasised their scrum dominance. For Ulster, failing to secure a losing bonus point may prove critical but there is a long way to go yet in this pool. They face a double header with Aironi in December and will need two wins and most likely at least one try-scoring bonus point from those two fixtures.
Photo courtesy: MD+D