The European fear factor of the Kingspan Stadium may not be as severe as the once Fortress Ravenhill, but it nevertheless helped carry Ulster over the line against a stuttering Wasps side as Ulster got their Champions Cup Pool 1 campaign off to a winning start last night.
It wasn’t pretty, with errors galore from both sides. Wasps tried to park their recent dreadful Premiership form and return to their typically exciting European version of last season, but they failed miserably as Ulster stormed back with a tremendous second-half performance which was a bit reminisce of old.
With their big-hitters, Joe Launchbury, Nathan Hughes and play-maker Jimmy Gopperth, re-instated from a long injury list, Wasps buzzed around with intent, but not much else as their failure to score a try proved. The visitors were made to work very hard in a first half they dominated. With a very creaky scrum and a line-out that was a far cry from last season’s European rugby’s top statistic, Ulster were decidedly playing second fiddle in that period.
While the first half was pretty sedentary, the second kept everyone interested, as Ulster scored tries through the ever-improving Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey with Christian Lealiifano landing two crucial penalties in the final quarter.
Ulster, though, will realise that the victory could paper over big cracks that have been there all season. But with an away trip next Sunday to an on-fire La Rochelle outfit, riding high in the Top 14, Ulster could have been heading for a hard Brexit with a home defeat. Instead they can now travel with loads more confidence. Going into the game, Ulster had won 13 of their last 17 games against English opposition. They can now tick off another.
On a typical Friday night at Ravenhill featuring a rain-effected surface and a light drizzle which made holding on to the ball a bit of a raffle, it was Wasps centre Elliot Daly who got the show on the road with a 48-metre penalty earned from his side’s first scrum of the evening in the fifth minute. John Coney levelled in the 15th minute with a straight-forward penalty.
A fumble at the back of their own scrum by number 8 Jean Deysel five metres from his own line, could have proved costly, but Wasps were adjudged to have infringed. Ulster did managed to get out of their own half again on 25 minutes with Stockdale take along pass from Christian Lealiifano. He bounced Christian Wade off with ease but he was unable to latch on to a kick through from Cooney.
But that visit to the Wasps half was all too brief and it was batten down the hatches again as the visitors broke out after another fumble by the Ulstermen. But their defence was extremely belligerent, twice turning over line-out driving mauls close to their own line. But it was Wasps who gained that psychological advantage when Jimmy Gopperth gave his side a 6-3 interval lead following another scrum penalty.
While Wasps edged further ahead shortly on the restart with a second Gopperth penalty, Ulster finally awoke from their slumber and after some concerted pressure, Lealiifano saw his try wiped out after the TMO was brought in to take a closer look in the 54th minute.
But it didn’t deter Ulster as within a minute it was the Charles Piutau-Stockdale axis that conjured up a try for the big winger. Ulster did it again in the 56th minute when a lose ball was picked up by Stockdale and the left wing fired an overhead pass to McCluskey to barge over.
With Cooney off, Lealiifano then swotted Wasps with his first points for Ulster banging over two sweetly-struck penalties, and the full house went home happy.
Tries: Stockdale, McCloskey; Pens: Cooney, Lealiifano 2.
Piutau, Ludik, L. Marshall, McCloskey, Stockdale, Lealiifano, Cooney, McCall, Herring, Herbst, Treadwell, Henderson, Diack, Reidy, Deysel.
Bowe for L. Marshall (69), P. Marshall for Cooney (65), Ah You for Herbst (65), C. Ross for Deysel (65).
Pens: Daly, Gopperth 2.
le Roux, Wade, Daly, Macken, Bassett, Gopperth, Robson, Mullan, Cruse, Cooper-Woolley, Launchbury, Rowlands, Haskell, Young, Hughes.
McIntyre for Mullan (65), Moore for Cooper-Woolley (68), Gaskell for Rowlands (62), J. Willis for Young (41).
Ben Whitehouse (Wales).
European Challenge Cup, Pool 3:
Agen 45 Zebre 10
British & Irish Cup, Pool 3:
Jersey 32 Yorkshire Carnegie 3
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