Last-gasp penalty gives Ulster a play-off berth

John Cooney held his nerve in the dying seconds to snatch victory

Jacob Stockdale
Jacob Stockdale scores one of Ulster’s two tries. Picture: Brian Little

BKT United Rugby Championship Ulster 23 Leinster 21

JOHN Cooney kicked a dramatic last-minute penalty as Ulster defeated Leinster to guarantee themselves a play-off berth with a game to spare.

With perfect spring weather above and a red-hot atmosphere inside before kick-off, the Kingspan Stadium had a feel of positivity rarely felt this season.

However, new permanent head-coach Richie Murphy has appeared to steady the ship and give a confidence to his players that was sorely lacking in the final months of the Dan McFarland tenure, and they now head to Munster for their final regular season game in two weeks’ time full of hope.

They can also now look forward to some end-of-season knock-out rugby thanks to tries from Rob Herring and a dramatic intercept Jacob Stockdale effort.

Leinster outscored the hosts with three tries of their own, but it was that man Cooney once more who was the difference between the sides, landing 13 points from the boot, including that last gasp winner from halfway.

The scrum-half spoke of what was going through his head just before striking the winning kick just before the final whistle.

“That was eerily quiet (before the kick), I didn’t really think too much if I’m honest, I’m just kicking.”

“When it went over I felt really proud and privileged as ever. When the crowd are shouting my name I feel really blessed and lucky, I just have a lot of gratitude.” He continued.

“I feel like there is a lot of good rugby ahead of me and I feel lucky to be in this job and get paid for doing what I do.”

Cooney missed a tackle on Leinster and Ireland full-back Hugo Keenan, who was returning from injury, in the lead-up to Cormac Foley’s try but he is determined to look forward and not backwards.

“I didn’t plan to miss Hugo Keenan for the try but it’s about how you respond. I felt energetic as the game went on and thankfully it went the right way.”

Ulster started the brighter of the sides and put a lot of pressure on a much-changed Leinster outfit who had an eye on the European Champions Cup final against Toulouse next weekend.

However, the hosts failed to ground the ball despite being over the line on three occasions, meaning instead of being comfortably ahead at the break they found themselves 10-14 behind.

It was much more of the same in the second period as Ulster carried hard and used the cross-kick to good effect to overcome a claustrophobic Leinster blitz defence. But Leinster were much more clinical in possession, scoring at almost every venture into the home team’s 22, a trademark of a side battling for a title.

As the game entered the final 90 seconds, Murphy’s men were picking and driving on halfway trying to force a penalty. And just as it looked like they would run out of time, referee Andrea Piardiblew his whistle as Leinster failed to clear their defence at a ruck.

Though Cooney was awarded player-of-the-match it could easily have been a couple of others in the Ulster team.

Stuart McCloskey was superb once more, with powerful carries and offloads. At one stage he managed three within two minutes. Will Addison was also colossal alongside McCloskey at centre, and fans will be disappointed with news this week that he will be one of nine players to exit in the summer. Perhaps Ulster can change that?

Coach Murphy was quick to point to the role the home fans played in the win.

“The players are saying in the dressing room that it has been a long time since they have played in an atmosphere like that.” He said.

“They had a big influence on the game.

“In the first half we left too many points out there, so we need to work on that finishing aspect.

“But overall it was a great day, and we can control our own destiny as we head into the play-offs.”