Paddy Jackson's late penalty completed an impressive comeback for Ulster with a 24-23 win over Oyonnax in France.
Ulster got out of jail at the Stade Charles Mathon when a massive rear guard effort kept them in this season’s Champions Cup.
With Munster and Leinster eliminated, the Northern Province is flying the Irish flag in this season’s competition and the pressure nearly destroyed them here.
Make no mistake, for 40 minutes Ulster were abject, bullied out of the contest by a vastly superior Oyonnax.
Tries by Jeremie Maurouard and Uwa Tawalo propelled the Top 14 strugglers into a richly deserved half-time lead.
Those tries were converted by fly-half Nick Robinson, who put in an imperious kicking performance that included three penalties. By half-time, the European ambitions of the Irish club looked dead and buried. It was a different Ulster in the second half, though, and a change at half-back allowed the Belfast men to salvage the game.
Tries from Craig Gilroy, Rory Scholes and Kyle McCall dragged the beleaguered visitors back into a contest that had looked lost.
The inspiration for their comeback was Jackson, who converted all three tries before landing a mammoth penalty to grab an unlikely win. Ulster breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief at the death, but they know they need to be considerably better next time.
Oyonnax were awarded a penalty on seven minutes from a dominant scrum, and Nicky Robinson kicked to the corner. From there, the hosts launched a fierce driving maul that Ulster were powerless to stop; with a grateful Maurouard at the bottom. Robinson converted to give his side a 7-0 lead.
The Alpine club were utterly dominant and when Robinson made it 10-0 after 14 minutes, Ulster were in all sorts of trouble.
Oyannax were relentless in their hounding of the 1999 winners, running at the Irishmen with a fiery determination. The Ulster defence was starting to look shell shocked and when Robinson nailed another penalty on 27 minutes, the deficit looked formidable.
Underpinning all of this was the superb Oyannax scrum and when Robinson added another penalty on 33 minutes, the hosts were 16-0 to the good.
And it got even worse for Ulster just before half-time. They found themselves in a good attacking position in the home 22. Marshall threw a pass wide, but if failed to find its target and Tawalo intercepted before running the length of the pitch to score. Luke Pearce went upstairs but the try was good, snd when Robinson converted Oyannax had an incredible 23-0 half-time lead.
Ulster had it all to do in the second half and Les Kiss changed his half-backs in a bid to regain momentum, with Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson replacing Ian Humphreys and Paul Marshall respectively.
The switch made an immediate impact and Scholes burst over on 43 minutes to score. Jackson converted to reduce the gap to 23-7. The change in impetus was immediate, and suddenly Ulster were on the front foot.
When Louis Ludik put Craig Gilroy into space on 62 minutes, the full-back made no mistake with the finish, and Jackson converted from a tight angle to reduce the gap to 23-14.
It was now game on, and the turnaround was cemented on 67 minutes.
With Ulster on the attack in the home 22, Rory Best pick and drove initially and was held up just short. The Oyannax defence was wilting, though, and prop McCall picked up and barged over to score. Jackson converted to reduce the gap to two points.
The Oyonnax defence was game, but fatigue was setting in and the hosts conceded a penalty on 77 minutes.
The kick was massive and Jackson stepped up to nail it from the half-way line, making the score 24-23. Even then, Oyonnox won a late scrum in front of the posts, but Ulster just clung on to make their great escape.
Tries: Maurouard, Tawalo
Cons: Robinson 2
Pens: Robinson 3
Tries: Scholes, Gilroy, McCall
Cons: Jackson 3
Oyonnax: 15 Quentin Etienne, 14 Dug Codjo, 13 Alaska Taufa, 12 Eamonn Sheridan, 11 Uwa Tawalo, 10 Nicky Robinson, 9 Julien Blanc, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Maurie Fa'asavalu, 6 Pierrick Gunther, 5 Fabrice Metz, 4 George Robson, 3 Marc Clerc, 2 Jeremie Maurouard, 1 Laurent Delboulbès.
Replacements: 16 Thomas Bordes, 17 Stan Wright, 18 Horace Pungea, 19 Leon Power, 20 Viliami Maafu, 21 Arthur Aziza, 22 Rory Clegg, 23 Daniel Ikpefan.
Ulster: 15 Craig Gilroy, 14 Sammy Arnold, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Rory Scholes, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Ricky Lutton, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Kyle McCall.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Nick Williams, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Louis Ludik.
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant Referees: Paul Dix (England), Andrew Small (England)
TMO: Geoff Warren (England)