Two tries in a five-minute spell in the second half gave Ulster a 14-13 victory over Leicester Tigers in an enthralling encounter in the Heineken Champions Cup at Welford Road on Saturday.
Tigers were unable to qualify for the knockout stages even before kick-off, though their visitors were still chasing the points to make mathematically certain of a place in the last eight and possibly even home advantage there.
The hosts were well worth their 10-point lead at half-time, though they had had to be patient for the breakthrough try after an early penalty from George Ford. The score eventually came from Matt Toomua on the stroke of half-time, with Ford adding the touchline conversion.
Ford made it 13-0 early in the second period and the game was an hour old before Ulster grabbed their first points with a converted score from Marty Moore. But they quickly added a second through Robert Baloucoune to lead by a point and retained the margin to the final whistle.
Tigers welcomed back England internationals Dan Cole, George Ford, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May after sitting out the trip to the Scarlets in Round 5, while Ben Youngs moved to joint-third in the club’s all-time list for European appearances as he ran out for the 68th time in the tournament. Ulster made just one change from the team that beat Racing 92, with Lions lock Iain Henderson returning to make his 100th appearance for the province.
The Ulster fans on the terrace were in full voice as French official Alexandre Ruiz, in charge for the first time at Welford Road, got the game under way on a chilly but bright winter’s afternoon, with Ford kicking towards The Robin Hood Stand end.
A knock-on by each side punctuated the opening exchanges, but both teams looked keen to attack from deep and Tigers had the best of the early chances as May kicked down the right following superb defensive work from Dan Cole back in his own half. But Jacob Stockdale got back to cover in-goal in a breathless period of play from both sides.
Play paused momentarily as Greg Bateman had his head taped up following a scrum near halfway, but the prop was back in the action for a strong drive from the forwards which ended with another error from the visitors just outside their own 22.
Tuilagi and Matt Toomua combined in midfield to take play almost within reach of the tryline but Ulster got back to defend and also closed out Olowofela as play spread to the left wing.
Youngs sensed an opportunity as he broke from the blindside of a scrum 30 metres out before being bundled into touch on the left.
Both teams were also keen to put pressure on their rivals with high kicks in behind defence and from one Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey thought he’d broken through, only to be hauled back for a knock-on.
The first quarter passed without either side making a breakthrough but with relentless effort on both sides of the ball.
It was Cole who looked like he’d found the right moment, timing his run on to a delayed ball by Ford to perfection on the edge of the 22, only to be stopped by the covering defence, Although Tigers arrived in support, the move ended with a knock-on as play moved to the right.
A high tackle on Will Addison from Brendon O’Connor near halfway gave Ulster a chance to push play upfield but they missed their timing in the lineout and Sione Kalamafoni was able to steal possession.
A huge hit by Mike Williams on full-back Louis Lutik knocked ball loose near halfway and gave Tigers put-in at another scrum.
The half-hour mark approached as Graham Kitchener sold a dummy to the Ulster defence on the left and it looked a promising position for Tigers until their rivals pressured Youngs at the breakdown and forced ball loose.
A push from the Tigers pack almost won scrum ball against the head on the Ulster 22, and Youngs reacted quickly to bring down opposite number David Shanahan and Tigers were awarded a penalty at the next breakdown, giving Ford a first sight of goal.
He struck it well to put first points on the board with 31 minutes gone.
Ford over-cooked a clearing kick moments later, though, and after it had run dead, play came back for an Ulster scrum on the Tigers 10-metre line.
McCloskey almost found a gap as Ulster opened up play, only for Ford to take him down and then Youngs brought down Shanahan just 10 metres out. The support was too slow to arrive and Tigers quickly swarmed over the breakdown to snuff out the danger.
More patient work in attack for Tigers, with Cole and Williams carrying again, finally brought the opening try as Toomua latched on to Ford’s clever kick to race in on the right.
Ford ended the half with the touchline conversion which made it 10-0 to Tigers.
Will Evans replaced O’Connor at half-time but there was no change in the pace of play, with Ford seeing space in behind the defence and kicking to touch within five metres of the tryline on the right. Ulster, though, played out quickly to relieve any pressure in their own territory.
Turnover ball in midfield gave Tigers a chance to open play, only for May to be tackled high with the Ulster defence stretched. Ford, sporting a cut above the right eye, took play down the right with the kick and it was the home crowd in fine voice as Kerr prepared to throw in.
Billy Burns was penalised for a deliberate knock-on in front of the posts just 10 metres out and Ford plated the ball for the kick, stretching the lead to 13 points with 50 minutes played.
A forward pass from Tuilagi inside his own 22 gave Ulster a chance from a scrum and, after winning a penalty award there, they played into the corner on the right.
Tigers, though, made a mess of their lineout drive and stole ball, threatening to breakaway as ball was played along the backline before Holmes ran out of space on the right. he had, though, taken play 25 metres up from the tryline as the crowd noise increased behind both teams.
Ulster almost found a way through with a cross-kick to the left but Youngs reacted quickly to block Nick Timoney’s progress and then Ford backed him up with a tackle which forced a knock-on just five metres from the tryline by flanker Sean Reidy.
Ulster, though, enjoyed their best spell of ball and field position around the 55-minute mark, keeping Tigers penned back near their own tryline as they played through the forwards. Evans was penalised close to the posts and the visitors played into the corner on the left to set up a score for prop Marty Moore. Replacement John Cooney added a tidy conversion from the left to make it 13-7.
They added a second from Baloucoune after overloading the eft-hand side just moments later and Cooney’s conversion put them one point in front.
Bateman then read a jinking run from Ford and charged to within 10 metres of the tryline before being cut down as Tigers looked for a response. But Ulster forced an error as Tigers tried to play on the right and kicked clear.
Geordan Murphy sent on a new front row for the final quarter-hour and fellow replacement Harry Wells was a prominent ball-carrier through phase after phase of possession in the opposition 22 before referee Ruiz finally blew in the defence’s favour at a breakdown just in front of the posts.
A penalty won in defence with 78 minutes gone gave Tigers one final chance as Ford booted play up the right-hand side. But Ross McMillan’s throw was off-target and the away fans started their celebrations in earnest.