Ulster rugby hopes take a tumble against Toulouse
ULSTER'S Heineken Champions Cup hopes look to have taken a significant blow as they lost their opening game at home to Toulouse, going down 29-22 to the French giants at Kingspan Stadium.
Ulster coach Dan McFarland bemoaned his side's wasted opportunities and the conceding of "soft tries".
In a game played in difficult conditions, the Irish province surrendered their two-year unbeaten home record in all competitions to French giants Toulouse, who also put them out at the quarter-final stage of last season's competition.
The four-time champions left Belfast with a bonus point from this hard-fought win, which saw South African World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe score two of Toulouse's four tries. He also bagged a brace in the last-eight clash between the sides in September.
"We gave up some soft tries on defence and probably didn't take a couple of chances we could have done," said McFarland, whose side picked up a losing bonus point.
"But we also played some really nice stuff and worked really hard. We had them under pressure for a lot of the game but key moments are absolutely pivotal.
"You can also say that when we were 12-0 up and gave away a soft try from a penalty ball on the floor and they ran it in from 60 metres out, that was a pretty pivotal moment.
"We had pinned them down in their half at that stage."
Referring to the heavy defeat Ulster suffered in Toulouse in the quarter-final, McFarland took no consolation from getting closer this time around
"We weren't as good as we can be, particularly on the defensive side of the ball," he said.
"We had weapons tonight and we didn't have weapons in the quarter-final.
"In terms of consolation, no, we've lost at home and that's not something we're used to doing and I'm really frustrated."
Double try scorer Kolbe commented: "Coming to Ulster was never going to be easy.
"I have to give a lot of credit to the boys and coaching staff for the game plan."
Reflecting on his contribution, Kolbe added: "Sometimes I think my body just takes over.
"But it's not about me, it's about the team and the forwards laying the foundation for me.
"I just had to finish off the opportunities.
"There aren't a lot of teams who come here and win, so I think we can take a lot of confidence from this."
Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire.
South Africa World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe scored a brace and the steady boot of Thomas Ramos kept the French side ticking over, with Ulster unable to take advantage of a late yellow card to Maxime Medard as they lost their first game in Belfast in 25 attempts.
It leaves them very unlikely to reach the last-eight in Europe too, with only four games to take points from and a home loss already in the books, with the province now likely needing three wins in their final three games, likely with a bonus point or two as well.
It had started so well, too, after their trademark dominant driving maul made the breakthrough after just 15 minutes with Jacob Stockdale helping shove Rob Herring over the line from close range for the opening score.
And they went over for a second off the restart too, John Cooney going on the wraparound with Ian Madigan to work the space down the wing for Matt Faddes, and when the Kiwi was able to go around the flailing Matthis Lebel, he had Madigan on the inside for an outstanding score.
But from nothing, Toulouse struck back immediately through the dynamic Kolbe, Sofiane Guitoune somehow shovelling the ball out to the flying Springbok on a scrappy play he chipped the onrushing Mike Lowry and then outpaced two defenders to regather and slide over.
There was a bit of added niggle to the game when Toulouse loosehead prop shoved Stuart McCloskey while the Ulster centre was tussling with Ramos on the floor, and that prefaced Dupont's brilliant individual try just before the interval, the scrum-half picking from the base of a scrum and then turning Mike Lowry inside out to go over.
Toulouse's lead lasted just three minutes after the restart as Cooney slotted the first penalty of the night to put the home side back in front, but the visitors would quickly retake it as they finally flexed their muscles in the pack, lock Iosefa Tekori making the initial surge, which turned into a maul taking the ball right to the line.
When the ball came back it needed just one surge from Rory Arnold, who rolled around the attempted tackle of Eric O'Sullivan to dot down.
But just when it seemed the visitors might run away with it, back came Ulster, as they went for the risky play when Cooney turned down a kick right in front of the posts, instead going for the corner, but it would pay off, Herring pushing over for his second of the night, with Cooney's conversion retaking the lead for the hosts.
That was ultimately a false dawn, however, and fittingly on a night that was the opposite to conditions perfect for running rugby, it was Kolbe that decided it.
Ramos' excellent cross field kick for Guitoune got the visitors into the 22, and from there they made no mistake. The ball was shipped along the back line once again, with Pita Ahki feeding Kolbe, and the winger somehow managed to get up after slipping and still wriggle over for what proved to be the winning score.
It looked like Ulster had been handed a lifeline late on when Medard was sin binned for not releasing Stockdale cynically after the winger had burst into the 22, but they couldn't take advantage, and Ramos landed a halfway line penalty to seal the win with three minutes to play.
Ulster: M Lowry, M Faddes, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; I Madigan, J Cooney, E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O’Connor, S Carter, M Rea, S Reidy, M Coetzee.
Replacements: J Andrew for Herring 58 mins, A Warwick for O’Sullivan 74 mins, T O’Toole for Moore 51 mins, D O’Connor for Carter 50 mins, G Jones for Coetzee 43 mins, A Mathewson, S Moore, C Gilroy for Madigan 74 mins.
Toulouse: M Medard, M Lebel, S Guitoune, R Ntamack, C Kolbe; T Ramos, A Dupont, C Baille, J Marchand, C Faumuina, R Arnold, J Tekori, R Elstadt, A Placines, S Tolofua:
Replacements: G Marchand, R Neti for Baiile 54 mins, G Ainu’u for Faumuina 59 mins, E Meafou for Tekori 58 mins, L Maudale for Placiners 58 mins, Y Youyoutte for Arnold 56 mins, P Ahki for Lebel 54 mins, A Bales for Dupont 58 mins,
Referee: M Carley (England).