There was controversy off the pitch, but on the field, Ulster huffed and puffed their way to a squeaky victory when they edged out the Ospreys.
That left them still in with the slimmest hopes of making the PRO14 play-offs with three games remaining, plus their Championship Cup qualifying hopes are still very much alive.
Kingspan Stadium was an emotive place last night, notwithstanding a game that was not decided until the final minute when Ireland hero Jacob Stockdale did what he does best, take a chance when presented to him.
It was the first home game since the Belfast Rape Trial where two of Ulster’s most prominent players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, were found not guilty of all charges.
There were protests and they came in many forms, but most individuals kept their feelings to themselves or made do with quiet uttering among friends. It was far from incendiary as around 250 protestors mostly from the Belfast-based Feminist Network highlighting their “Stamp out Misogyny at Ulster Rugby” mantra.
Ironically, Ulster Rugby Supporters Club presented a cheque for £2000 in support of the 2017/18 Women’s Performance programme, following last season’s successful World Cup which featured a dramatic final in Belfast. That presentation was meant to be delivered back in March at the Glasgow fixture which was subsequently postponed due to snow.
The most disruptive element of the evening was actually Ulster themselves. It was a game, featuring a comedy of errors from both free-spirited teams as they attempted to fling the ball about with gay abandon.
Unfortunately a dire lack of accuracy was all too evident.
Ulster certainly had their backs up from the first whistle and it was 10 minutes before the Ospreys managed a sojourn into their half. By that time, Cooney had knocked over a simple penalty, the only score until Stockdale’s intervention at the death.
Throughout the game, Ulster managed to butcher some gold-plated opportunities.
Patience, unfortunately, was not a virtue for the home side as they had complete control of possession and territory. Some dreadful decisions also limited Ulster’s cause as they attempted to play heads-up rugby without engaging the brain.
Ulster had a big let-off on the half-hour when a midfield mistake allowed Ospreys to break clear and score, only for Kieron Fonotia’s try to be ruled out after Alun Wynn Jones was spotted giving Iain Henderson a neck roll at a ruck.
The second half mimicked the first, except Ulster had an embarrassing amount of possession, but they just could not get a rhythm or momentum going as time and again chances went abegging. Again, some decision-making in such a tight game was also puzzling. Three times they could have taken pot shots at goal mid-way through the second half, but instead opted for either a line-out or scrum, albeit when Ospreys wing Jeff Hassler was yellow-carded in the 58th minute.
It looked more promising in the 68th minute when it appeared replacement Nick Timoney had managed to touch down in the corner from a Luke Marshall grubber. But after a lengthy consultation with the TMO, Irish referee Andrew Brace adjudged the ball had been knocked on.
It was only when the game started to swing into overtime and the Ospreys began to move dangerously upfield when that man Stockdale picked off a loose pass and grabbed the try that calmed the nerves.
C Piutau; L Ludik, D Cave (Marshall, 49), S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney; C Black (Warwick, 55), R Best (Herring, capt 68), R Kane (O’Toole, 77), K Treadwell (O’Connor, 51), I Henderson, M Rea, J Deysel, S Reidy (Timoney, 64).
R Herring, A Warwick, T O’Toole, A O’Connor, N Timoney, D Shanahan, L Marshall, T Bowe.
D Evans; J Hassler, K Fonotia, O Watkin, H Dirksen, D Biggar, T Habberfield; N Smith (Jones, 66), S Otten (Phillips, 17), D Arhip, B Davies, A Beard (Mercer, 66), A Wyn Jones (capt), S Cross, J King.
I Phillips, R Jones, M Fia, L Ashley, G Mercer, M Aubrey, S Davies, J Hook.
Andrew Brace (IRFU).
Stockdale, Pen: Cooney)
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