Ulster 35 Ospreys 17: So after a season where more headlines were made off the pitch rather than on it, Ulster, the 1999 Heineken Cup kingpins and forerunners of Ireland’s glorious history in the competition, will still have a place at the top table of European rugby next season.
Helped by two cracking tries from late call-up Craig Gilroy, and two more from Kieran Treadwell and arch poacher Jacob Stockdale, they could also rely on the steady boot of their player of the season, John Cooney.
It appeared it wasn’t going to happen for Ulster before the start of this PRO14 Champions Cup play-off against Ospreys yesterday in Belfast after both full-back Charles Piutau (Achilles) and tight-head Ross Kane (back spasm) peeled off from the warm-up down the tunnel before kick-off.
With skipper Rory Best and Iain Henderson already sidelined through injury earlier in the week, it looked an impossible task for an Ulster side. In the end, they proved everyone wrong, in an unusually sparse stadium where the crowd barely topped 7,000.
It was the Ospreys, with 11 internationals in their starting line-up, who motored into top gear the quickest and when skipper Alun-Wyn Jones bustled his way over in the 16th minute, one envisaged the worst for Ulster.
Dan Bigger converted, but a penalty soon afterwards bounced clear off the upright.
That seemed to energise Ulster and a sustained bout of pressure enabled Cooney to land a 28th-minute penalty. There was more from this Ulster side when Luke Marshall, who was later stretchered off, put a delicate kick into the corner where Gilroy took flight to get the touchdown.
Gilroy again immediately on the restart was on hand to get the touchdown on another expertly weighted kick, this time from Johnny McPhillips.
And Ulster, playing with sustained venom and speed in defence, were not finished yet. They set about a panicked and wilting Ospreys defence, and lock Kieran Treadwell crashed over with Cooney again converting, 22-7.
There was a hiccup when Ospreys winger Jeff Hassler crashed over on the hour. But Ulster reasserted their authority with man-of-the-match Cooney knocking over a couple more penalties and then that master thief Stockdale picked up another runaway try from a loose ball in the 72nd minute to finish his season in style.
Scorers for Ulster (Tries: Gilroy 2; Treadwell, Stockwell, Pens: Cooney 3; Cons: Cooney 3)
Scorers for Ospreys (Tries: Jones; Hassler; Pen: Biggar).
L Ludik (Busby, 19); C Gilroy, L Marshall (Cave, 58), S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney (Shanahan, 75); C Black (Warwick, 20), R Herring (capt), T O’Toole, A O’Connor, K Treadwell, R Diack (Henry, 72), S Reidy, N Timoney.
S Davies; J Hassler, A Beck, O Watkin (Hook, 55), H Dirksen (Allen, 48); D Biggar, T Habberfield; N Smith (Jones, 53), S Otten (Phillips, 73), D Arhip (Ma’fu Fia, 53), B Davies (Beard, 72), A Wyn Jones (capt), D Lydiate (Cross, 47), J Tipuric, J King.
Marius Mitrea (FIR).
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