Red-hand gang pack a punch as Pienaar gives them final push
Ulster 22 Edinburgh 19: Kicking king earns Ulster chance of first Heineken Cup triumph since 1999
In a simplistic sense this was a triumph of power over finesse but to leave it at that would be to ignore the multiple facets of intelligence and skill that made Ulster's Ruan Pienaar a shoo-in as man of the match, and spread like a life-giving elixir throughout the province's white jerseys as they galloped through to next month's Heineken Cup final at Twickenham.
In doing so the red-hand gang will make ready to party like it was 1999, which was the year of their solitary European success to date, though they will need no warning that whoever emerges from today's Franco-Irish semi-final in Bordeaux will be formidable opposition. Ulster were runners-up to Clermont Auvergne in their pool and of course live cheek by jowl with the vastly more successful Leinster. Pienaar, whose talent has seen him play every backline position for South Africa, was first among equals in Ulster's much valued quartet of Springboks, kicked five penalties and a conversion of Pedrie Wannenburg's mildly controversial first-half try. The scrum-half's stunning reprise of the magnificent kicking that helped Ulster win in Munster in their quarter-final went hand in Ulster's red hand with a punishing scrummaging performance that made light of the absence of their suspended All Black prop John Afoa.
Pienaar said: "All of us know what it means to the city [of Belfast] and the region to reach the final. The first half we had hardly any ball, we knew we had to keep it and get territory in the second half. There were a lot of guts and character out there."
Edinburgh, like Ulster, had upset the odds to eliminate the four-times champions Toulouse in the quarters, to secure a first Scottish appearance at this stage. The first scrum was a clear signpost to Edinburgh's seventh successive defeat by an Irish side, and their 13th in a row in Ireland. It brought a penalty to Ulster when Declan Fitzpatrick, Afoa's English-born stand-in, got the benefit of the doubt in a front-row collapse. Pienaar, true to his European form, whacked the kick over from about 60 metres accounting for the angle. He was not to miss thereafter.
Edinburgh were wedded to darting changes of direction and rapid offloading. Whereas the 40,000 or so Ulster supporters were deafening, the Edinburgh fly-half and captain Greig Laidlaw's two kicks for a 6-3 lead were hailed lustily if much less audibly by a backing outnumbered by at least 10 to one.
And there was some loud debate over Ulster's try after 15 minutes. A brief overlap for the backs near the 22 was wasted; not so the subsequent scrum close to the goalline though perhaps the referee Romain Poite was lenient in allowing Wannenburg to hook the ball back into the scrum before the No 8 picked up and drove over through slack defence. Pienaar converted for 10-6.
Long phases of possession and time spent in Ulster's 22 brought nothing for Edinburgh even though they were buoyed when Stefan Terblanche went to the sin bin in the 29th minute for slapping an opponent in a ruck. Pienaar's second long penalty followed and just before the interval Laidlaw chipped one in return to narrow the margin to four points.
A madcap sequence of intercepted passes to start the second half hinted that Ulster might fancy opening up, a la Edinburgh, and the apparent recalibration continued when Laidlaw kicked his fourth penalty for offside. A punt down the line earned Ulster valuable field position and a series of line-outs, scrums and penalties saw Dan Tuohy held up short, and Wannenburg dramatically stripped of the ball under the posts by a fantastically gutsy Laidlaw.
Edinburgh brought Roddy Grant on for the hard-working Ross Rennie and immediately conceded a penalty at a scrum that Pienaar kicked from 40 metres for 16-12 after 58 minutes. Both kickers made the swirling wind appear an insignificant zephyr. The question was whether the legs of Edinburgh's remaining back-row starters David Denton and Netani Talei would hold out, after they had put in so many hard yards dealing with Steve Ferris and company. Ulster then wrought two more penalties for 22-12. Edinburgh were struggling to get out of their half until much too late when Talei's breakout with a link by Matt Scott made a try for replacement Jim Thompson.
Laidlaw said he thought Edinburgh ought have been allowed to go for the ball at the talked-about scrum but he made no major excuses. "We missed opportunities when we dropped the ball in critical areas," Laidlaw said. "We were tired, it was a tough game and Ulster sucked the life out of us."
Ulster S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick (A Macklin, 65), J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, P Wannenburg, W Faloon.
Edinburgh T Brown; L Jones (J Thomson, 70), N de Luca, M Scott, T Visser; G Laidlaw (capt), M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross, G Gilchrist, S Cox, D Denton, N Talei, R Rennie (R Grant, 56).
Referee R Poite (France).
Pens: Pienaar 4
Pens: Laidlaw 4
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