Both teams knew before this concluding match in Heineken Cup Pool Five that they had done enough to qualify for the quarter-finals; Ruan Pienaar’s all-court brilliance against a Leicester team mostly blunted by brutal defence ensured it would be Ulster who go into the last eight with the hugely significant prize of a home draw.
Ulster will host England’s only other qualifiers, Saracens, in April at Ravenhill, where work is going on apace to finish the rebuilding of that venerable rugby bearpit to a new 18,000-capacity; they might be able to smell the paint, as well as the cordite. Leicester, by contrast, will be away in France. How painfully they will board the plane.
Losing here is never easy to stomach; you can double or treble that feeling, however, when a home tie was in Leicester’s grasp with a 10-point lead during the third quarter, only for their captain Toby Flood to be charged down for a crucial try by Pienaar, who scored all of Ulster’s points.
Reduced to qualifying as one of the best two runners-up, Tigers will go to Toulon or Clermont – it will be the latter if the Massif Central club beat Racing Métro with a bonus point today.
These are dire portents for Leicester, whose two most recent Heineken quarter-finals were away, and they lost them both: to Toulon last season and Leinster in 2011. In reaching their three finals they played in their home city each time in the last eight.
“Clermont have a pretty average home record – what is it, 73 unbeaten,” said Richard Cockerill, Leicester’s director of rugby, with glum humour. “Oh joy.” He may have Manu Tuilagi and Logo Mulipola back from injury by April, and possibly Geoff Parling. But Leicester’s rotten injury list worsened last night when Jordan Crane suffered a/c joint damage, and Mat Tait also hobbled off after landing awkwardly. That was two important running threats gone before the interval.
Pienaar did much to guide Ulster to their losing Heineken final in 2012 and the versatile Springbok scrum-half was at it again, seeing a chance when most had stopped running, to dart into Leicester’s 22 and charge down Flood, who should have been able to get his clearance away comfortably from a deep pass behind a ruck by Ben Youngs. There was also a penalty in each half by Pienaar on the long side of halfway: monumental stuff.
There was Ulster flag-flying of the uncontroversial kind, with red-hand banners in large numbers around the Crumbie Stand. In a drumskin-tight first half Ulster’s driving maul from lineouts brought two penalties for Pienaar in addition to his first long-range effort. Flood had the same tally – two of the penalties were against Ulser in the scrum – but he was hobbling for a few minutes after being clattered by Pienaar just after making a clearance.
Roger Wilson had a marginally legal tackle around Youngs’ chest checked over by the video referee. Youngs – a possible starter for England in France on Saturday week, unlike Flood who has been dropped pending his transfer to a French club next summer – overcooked some box-kicks, as did Pienaar.
A foot in touch by Andrew Trimble when chasing a chip by Pienaar ended a promising Ulster position in the Leicester 22. Restarts, including one by Toby Flood, flew out on the full. You get the picture: it was fraught, and then some.
Since Leicester revealed Flood’s move the 28-year-old has entered a strange weird half-season of seeing out his stint. Does it increase or diminish his motivation to win something before he goes? Leicester, whose Heineken titles of 2001 and 2002 are receding ever further into history, are odds against doing so either domestically or in Europe.
Pienaar’s penalty on 57 minutes was swiftly followed by his chargedown try and conversion from wide out to level the scores. With another Pienaar penalty in the 71st minute, Ulster were up. There was a big kick by Flood with a penalty to the corner but even bigger defence by Ulster, snuffing the maul out first, then Wilson one on one with Rob Hawkins and finally Flood being harried into knocking on in midfield.
Any chance of a Leicester win was finally gone when they were shoved off their scrum ball at the cost of a penalty two minutes from full-time.
So Ulster, ferocious at the breakdown and in their rush defence, and quarter-finalists for a fourth season in succession, have qualified with six wins out of six. It is a record that notoriously has never led to winning the cup, but the alternative faced by Leicester is much worse.
Leicester Tigers: M Tait (S Hamilton, 39); N Morris, M Smith (O Williams, 80), A Allen, N Goneva; T Flood (capt), B Youngs (D Mélé, 65); M Ayerza, T Youngs (R Hawkins, 69), D Cole, E Slater, G Kitchener (L Deacon, 47), J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane (S Mafi, 20).
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black (T Court, 56), R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy ( I Henderson, 65), R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams (R Diack, 56).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).