Leicester Tigers were unable to get the Heineken Champions Cup campaign off to a winning start in Belfast as they were beaten 24-10 by Ulster Rugby at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday.
George Ford, who later spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin after a high tackle on Ulster full-back Michael Lowry, provided the only points of the first half, kicking a penalty from in front of the posts on the quarter-hour mark.
Incessant rain made handling difficult, while both defences also forced errors in possession in a first period every bit as close as the scoreline suggested.
But scores in the opening 20 minutes of the second half from Alan O’Connor and Will Addison put Ulster in the driving seat in the opening fixture in Pool 4.
Scrum-half John Cooney kicked both conversions and added a penalty to keep Tigers outside of bonus-point territory and the hosts made sure with a third try from wing Jacob Stockdale.
There was still time for Manu Tuilagi to show his strength on the ball in the final five minutes but that was the end of the scoring as Tigers started a 22nd season of European competition with defeat.
Tigers brought Brendon O’Connor back into the starting line-up with David Denton absent, and gave Jordan Olowofela a first European opportunity with Jonny May sidelined by a shoulder injury.
After 24 hours of rain in Northern Ireland, skies started to clear just ahead of kick-off and it was Ulster who got the game under way, though the handling conditions quickly became apparent with a number of spills early on.
A lineout infringement gave Ulster a first chance to push play into the Tigers half, though Adam Thompstone fielded well from a chip through into the corner and Ben Youngs kicked clear, as he did several more times in the half.
Another penalty put Ulster inside the Tigers 22 and they threatened among the forwards until knocking-on just 10 metres out. Tigers, though, remained in their own half until good work in midfield wrapped up possession and earned put-in at the game’s first scrum.
After an initial re-set, Ulster were penalised going backwards and Ford put their defence under pressure with a towering kick which full-back Michael Lowry spilled under pressure from Kyle Eastmond in front of the Ulsters posts.
From the resulting scrum, referee Pascal Gauzere whistled again and Ford’s penalty kick gave Tigers the first points on the board with 15 minutes played.
Burns almost put half-back partner John Cooney through a gap after the restart but just couldn’t free the ball as he knocked on.
Both sides were using high kicks to gain territory and test defences, but it was good footwork and strength in midfield by Will Addison that had Tigers in trouble on the 20-minute mark. He put Lowry on a run against an outnumbered defence and, although Ford showed good pace to get back, he was yellow-carded for a high tackle just five metres out.
Ulster used a scrum to establish an attacking platform but when they created space on the right win for Craig Gilroy, Jonah Holmes tackled him into touch as he slid towards the tryline.
Tigers were then penalised near halfway when Tom Youngs thought the ball had been lost in contact, but the defence forced another error and Greg Bateman reacted quickly to take Tigers forward.
After another penalty at the breakdown, Ulster kept the ball in the corner but lost control after a clean catch from back-rower Jordi Murphy.
With Ford in the last minute of his sin-bin, Tigers pack won a scrum penalty near halfway and it was Youngs who kicked down the right touchline as the visitors finally got back into rival territory.
They could not hold ball from the lineout, but big carries from Bateman, Tom Youngs and Harry Wells took play almost up to the tryline before Ulster won a penalty as they contested the breakdown.
Ford returned as play restarted but Ulster lost prop Ross Kane as he was replaced by Marty Moore.
Mike Williams was then penalised near halfway, allowing Ulster to set up another attacking lineout. Although Tigers stood up to up to the set-piece, the referee judged them to have done so illegally. They again repelled the drive, though referee Gauzere gave Ulster a scrum put-in as the ball was caught at the bottom of the ruck just seven metres from the tryline. The greasy ball made control difficult, though, and Ben Youngs managed to put Cooney under enough pressure that Tigers could turnover ball.
Olowofela, Bateman and skipper Youngs made useful advance on the ball but it was Tigers’ turn to lose control and Ulster won the scrap for possession on the floor.
Fly-half Burns left the field seconds before half-time after a tackle on Manu Tuilagi, with Angus Curtis taking over at 10.
With the clock already past 40 minutes, Guy Thompson won a penalty on the floor inside his own half and Ford kicked into the right-hand corner. A snappy delivery at the front of the lineout gave Tigers one more opportunity but, after setting up Ford to go for a drop goal, Best was able to block the kick. Tigers, though, still led 3-0 as the half-time whistle blew.
Burns returned at the start of the second half and Ulster were quickly on the attack with two more penalties into the left-hand side, which finally brought a breakthrough.
After taking possession at the tail of the lineout, lock Alan O’Connor made the final push to dot down.
Scrum-half Cooney kicked the conversion to make it 7-3 and Ulster instrantly burst through for what they thought was an instant second, with lock partner Iain Henderson adding the final touch in the right-hand corner.
The referee, though, wanted to look at a replay and decided a forward pass had been thrown and play restarted on halfway.
It was a big escape for Tigers but also a warning about how quickly a swing in momentum can change a tight game.
Tigers quickly tried to make the most of it with an attacking lineout taking play up the Ulster five-metre line with Tom Youngs steering the pack. Although they were stopped short, play came back for a repeat, only this time the throw was not straight and \Ulster had put-in five metres from their own tryline.
Tatafu Polota-Nau joined the front row on 54 minutes but play was starting to stretch with Williams making a big hit in defence and then Holmes chasing a 50-metre clearing kick from Kyle Eastmond which had Ulster quickly tracking back.
Ulster, though, claimed a precious score on 58 minutes when Addison found his way over on the left after a break by Sean Reidy. Cooney added the kick from the left to stretch the lead to14-3.
Matt Toomua and Sam Harrison were on the field as replacements for Eastmond and Ben Youngs and David Feao joined the front row, though Tigers were struggling to get ball back and build any phases of possession just as the clouds opened again.
Ulster’s full-back Lowry was held up over the tryline in a promising attack on 67 mutes but lay came back for a penalty and Cooney pushed the hosts 17-3 in front with 11 minutes remaining on the clock.
Joe Heyes got a taste of the European action as a replacement for Dan Cole.
A third Ulster try came on 72 minutes with wing Stockdale getting on the end of a quick attack on the left and Cooney maintained his record from the tee as he made it 24-3 with the conversion.
There was some consolation for Tigers, though, when Tuilagi broke the defensive line and ran in from the Ulster 22 to score to the left of the posts and Ford added the extras.
A Tuilagi knock-on under pressure 20 metres from his own line gave Ulster a final push for a bonus-point score but Tigers held them out and even sensed a chance of their own as Olowofela broke out, only to be closed down on the left wing as the hosts closed out victory.