Rugby Union

Agony for Ulster as Tigers pounce in European Rugby Challenge Cup

Ulster Rugby's Michael Lowry is tackled by Leicester Tigers' Jasper Wiese (left) and Tomas Lavanini (right) during the European Rugby Challenge Cup semi-final match at Mattioli Woods Welford Road, Leicester on Friday April 30, 2021. Picture by Mike Egerton/PA Wire. 

European Challenge Cup semi-final: Leicester Tigers 33 Ulster Rugby 24

ULSTER won't have the chance to end their 15-year trophy drought after falling to an agonising 33-24 defeat to Leicester Tigers in the semi-final of the European Challenge Cup at Welford Road last night.

Leicester will meet either Premiership rivals Bath or Montpellier in the final at Twickenham on May 22 with those two teams squaring up tonight at the Rec.

Dan McFarland's side led 17-6 at the break but failed to consolidate, conceding 20 unanswered points in a horrible third quarter against a Leicester side inspired by England fly-half George Ford.

Ulster made a bright start but an early error by Jacob Stockdale, who went off his feet when under pressure, presented Leicester with a fifth minute penalty but Ford's effort from a kickable position drifted wide.

But the No.10 made amends a minute later when he fired the ball between the sticks after Eric O'Sullivan had been penalised for offside.

However, Cooney levelled matters in the 10th minute after Leicester's South African backrow Hanro Liebenberg had also been caught offside.

From the next penalty two minutes later, Billy Burns found touch and after several phases following the lineout, Rob Baloucoune went over but the try was chalked off after a video replay for a knock-on in the build up by Nick Timoney.

Ulster then had the benefit of an extra man when Leicester skipper Tom Youngs was shown a yellow card for an infringement on the goal-line when the visitors were exerting pressure following a lineout maul.

McFarland's men were quick to take advantage after their hosts were penalised for offside, Iain Henderson eventually spinning over after a tap-and-go by Rob Herring and Cooney's conversion made it 10-3 by the 17th minute.

Ford had a chance to reduce the arrears at the end of the first quarter after Alan O'Connor had been penalised at a lineout and he made no mistake from 49 metres out.

But it took Ulster just two minutes to make their early superiority and the extra man count again as Burns went over after being set up by Cooney following a superb team move and the latter added the extras from the touch line to make it 17-6.

The Tigers then enjoyed their best spell at that point threatening the Ulster line forcing Stockdale to touch down behind the try-line and concede a five-metre scrum.

The pressure continued as Leicester had a penalty advantage and opted for another scrum but Ulster repelled the danger and won an important turnover and a penalty to boot.

But Ulster remained under the cosh for the last 10 minutes of the opening half without looking uncomfortable and they defended well when needed with Leicester unable to translate their possession into a score before the break.

The first-half stats revealed that Ulster had 65% possession and 70% territory winning the penalty count 7-5 so it was looking good as the game entered the second 40 minutes, with the first score all-important.

Ulster's chances of getting it suffered a major blow in the 44th minute when Cooney was left prostrate after being accidently hit on the head by the arm of Leicester's giant wing Nemani Nadolo and the scrum-half was forced to retire to be replaced by Alby Mathewson.

The loss of Cooney was felt even more acutely two minutes after his departure when Nadolo was involved in the build-up for No.8 Jasper Wiese to break two tackles and go over and Ford's conversion reduced the deficit to just four points.

The margin became the minimum on 50 minutes as the momentum shifted in the home side's direction when Ford knocked over a penalty after Ulster had been pinged for offside.

Things went from bad to worse for Ulster in the 54th minute when, after Baloucoune had initially conceded a sloppy penalty, Leicester went ahead.

Ford found fellow international Ellis Genge following the lineout and a few phases and the prop went over with the fly-half adding the extras to make it 23-17. 

Ford then added a drop goal - something of a rarity in rugby these days - to stretch the lead and make it a two-score game shortly before the hour mark.

But after managing to regroup and inspired by the introduction of Will Addison, Ulster were right back in the game with 10 minutes left.

Nick Timoney grabbed a try out of nothing, sprinting 35 metres after collecting a pass from Stuart McCloskey before touching down for Mike Lowry to convert and make it 24-26 with 10 minutes left.

But it was game over five minutes later when man-of-the-match Ford's brilliant long pass to Freddie Steward created the chance for Guy Porter to touch down.

Ford's conversion put nine points between the teams and Ulster's dream of reaching a first European final since 2012 was shattered.


European Challenge Cup semi-final: Leicester Tigers 33 Ulster Rugby 24

Leicester: Steward; Porter, Moroni, Scott, Nadolo; Ford, Wigglesworth; Genge, T Youngs (capt), Cole, Wells, Green, Martin, Liebenberg, Wiese.

Replacements: Clare, De Bruin, Heyes, Lavanini, Brink, B Youngs, Henry, Murimurivalu.

Ulster: Stockdale; Baloucoune, Hume, McCloskey, McIlroy; Burns, Cooney; O'Sullivan, Herring, Moore, Henderson (capt), A O'Connor; Rea, Murphy, Timoney.

Replacements: Andrew, Warwick, O'Toole, Treadwell, Reidy, Mathewson, Lowry, Addison.

Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France).

Touch judges: Romain Poite (France), Alexandre Ruiz (France).

TMO: Eric Gauzins (France).


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