South African, Ruan Pienaar, led Ulster in a 22-19 victory over the Leicester Tigers today, in the last game of the pool rounds of the Heineken cup.
Pienaar scored all of the Irish club’s points with a try, a conversion and five penalties, securing their finish at the top of pool five, with six wins from six games.
The Tigers lost their first home game in the European cup since 2007, meaning they will have to travel to play their quarter final in the knockout stage of the tournament, probably in France.
The Tigers welcomed centre, Anthony Allen, back into the team after a lengthy recovery from injury, the 27 year old had a brilliant game, not missing a tackle and making some good, testing runs at the Irish defence.
Ed Slater and Graham Kitchener, also both back from injury, paired up as second rows for the Tigers, helping the Leicester pack dominate in the scrums, which forced two penalties in the game which Toby Flood kicked successfully.
Ulster hooker, Rory Best, earned his 150th cap for his club today and was an integral part of the strong visiting pack.
Welford Road, the Tiger’s stronghold, was fit to burst, reaching its capacity of 24,000 spectators with both sets of bringing a lot of atmosphere to the stadium.
The game started well for the Tigers, several phases of good passing leading to Ulster conceding a penalty after a poor scrum on their part. Flood scored easily, putting Leicester on the scoreboard 3-0.
Ulster started to put the pressure on, with lots of high balls being hammered into the Leicester twenty-two, but fullback Matthew Tait fielded them well and cleared effectively.
At the 11 minute mark Ulster conceded another penalty on their ten-metre line, Flood slotting it again with ease bringing the score to 6-0.
After the re-start, Ulster attacked hard, with scrum half Pienaar putting a cross-field kick into the corner for winger Gilroy to chase. Luckily for the Tigers, the ball crossed the touchline before the winger could collect.
The Tigers then pushed back against Ulster, scrum half Ben Youngs finding Jordan Crane after a strong run to the edge of the Irish sides twenty-two yard line. Unfortunately the number eight spilt the ball and was injured in the process.
Mafi replaced Crane and as soon as he stepped on the pitch set up a darting run for lock, Kitchener, who sprinted half the pitch, Ulster winger, Gilroy, just arriving back in time to stop the effort.
The Tigers were then awarded another penalty after a poor scrummaging effort from Ulster, Flood again converting to bring the score to 9-3.
After the restart, Ulster ran hard at the Leicester defensive line, eventually leading to a penalty after Dan Cole failed to join the back of a breakdown in play. Pienaar kicked for 9-6 to the Tigers.
At the half hour mark, Pienaar scored another 3 points after Ed Slater found himself without support on the ten-metre channel of the Tigers’ half. The scores were levelled at 9-9.
The Tigers had another chance at taking the lead before the first half finished, after John Afoa failed to roll away from his tackle on Ben Youngs. Flood unfortunately hooked his kick to the left of the uprights.
The half ended 9-9 with the game being very even and could have gone either way.
The second half again started well for the Tigers, some good hands in their back line led to another penalty in the ten-metre channel in the Ulster half.
Louis Deacon replaced Kitchener in the second row to make his 67th Heineken Cup appearance and an injection of power into the Tigers’ team.
Leicester then had several phases of attack but seemed unable to breach the impressive and impenetrable Ulster defence. Eventually Toby Flood found a gap by tapping a grubber kick out wide for Morris to secure the Tigers’ try. Flood then converted bringing the Tigers 19-9 ahead.
Ulster came back ferociously, with wave after wave of attack smashing into the defensive line of the Tigers. After some solid tackling from the Leicester boys however, the ball was turned over and cleared.
Ulster regained possession and earned a penalty after the Tigers tackler failed to roll away at the ruck, allowing Pienaar to bring the score to 19-12.
After the restart, Ulster scrum half (and ‘man of the match’ winner) Pienaar charged down a clearance from Toby Flood and chased it down over the Tigers try-line. He then converted his own effort levelling the scores at the hour mark at 19-19.
With ten minutes left on the clock, Ulster won another penalty, this one just inside their own half, and Pienaar again proved his worth by easily scoring and bringing his team into the lead 22-19.
The Tigers responded with their best play of the game, quick and direct running led the local lads attacking their opponents’ five-metre line. Unfortunately, Leicester captain, Toby Flood, knocked on when receiving the ball on the line.
Ulster cleared the ball and the game was finished with the marginally better side marginally winning 22-19.
The Irish club have done exceptionally well in the pool stages of the tournament and will now get to host their quarter final at their own newly-refurbished stadium, Ravenhill.
The Tigers will have to play theirs abroad after going through as one of the best runners up.
All in all the Tigers played quite well, their defence was impressive and their decision-making was textbook. Unfortunately in attack the ball was slow at moving from the rucks and the back line was static and flat, allowing Ulster to close them down and limiting their own chances. If these holes in the Tigers’ game are addressed and rectified before the quarter finals there is no reason the Tigers cannot get through the next round of the competition.