Finn Russell's conversion clinched a dramatic 16-14 victory for Glasgow Warriors over Ulster as they advanced to the Pro12 Final.
The Scottish pacesetters weren’t at their best, but just about edged home in a compelling, if scrappy, encounter.
Ulster dominated for large portions of the game, and seemed to have the contest wrapped up with just minutes remaining on the clock, but a late Glasgow try denied them the home final they so desperately craved.
The Ravenhill men raced ahead with a first half try from openside Chris Henry, and his effort was complemented by three well-taken penalties from South African talisman, Ruan Pienaar.
This enabled Ulster to build a slender half-time lead against the wind, but the Irishmen failed to put away a determined Glasgow side.
The hosts nipped at Ulster’s heels through the boot of Russell, the fly-half contributing two penalties and a conversion, while Stuart Hogg also chipped in with a fine penalty.
Despite this, the Irishmen seemed to have done enough to cling on, but a late try by the departing DTH van der Merwe sealed a victory that keeps Glasgow’s immaculate home record intact, and gives them a chance to atone for last year’s defeat by Leinster.
Ulster showed ambition early on, with Iain Henderson particularly conspicuous in terms of ball carrying duties. The intensity of the blindside’s thrust forced Glasgow to concede in a first minute penalty, and Pienaar made no mistake with the resulting kick to earn his side a 3-0 lead.
Glasgow responded well, though, and attained good position in the Ulster half; forcing international number eight Roger Wilson to give away a penalty in his own 22. Russell easily landed the kick to cancel out Pienaar’s effort, levelling the score at 3-3.
After ten minutes, there was precious little between the sides, with Ulster shading possession but creating very little in terms of clear cut chances.
The visitors were conceding at an alarming rate, though, and Glasgow were able to capitalise on 13 minutes.
At the first scrum of the contest Ulster loosehead Callum Black infringed, enabling Glasgow full-back Hogg to land a mammoth penalty to edge the Warriors into a 6-3 lead. The Irishmen responded superbly to the setback, going through multiple phases in the Glasgow half.
Once established in the Warriors’ 22, Henderson created space for fly-half Paddy Jackson who in turn put Henry away to score in the left hand corner. Pienaar missed the conversion, but Ulster were ahead again at 8-6. Glasgow were keen to arrest Ulster’s momentum, and created opportunities of their own through the dangerous running of livewire winger Niko Matawalu. The Irishmen continued to control territory, however, though the pinpoint kicking of their cultured half-backs.
The half ended with the Irish underdogs camped on the Glasgow line, and applying pressure through a series of scrums. The Warriors’ eight seemed to be buckling, but the visitors lacked the composure to get over the line. Despite the superb field position, it was the Ulster pack that conceded possession, allowing George Clancy to blow the half-time whistle. At the end of an absorbing half, then, Ulster were ahead by a whisker.
Glasgow made a bright state to the second period and showed a marked increase in intensity from their first half efforts.
But Ulster continued to put the squeeze on their opponents, with the scrum continuing to exert pressure on its Glasgow counterparts. And the set-piece dominance yielded dividends on 56 minutes when the Irishmen were awarded a penalty when replacement Glasgow tighthead Mike Cusack conceded under pressure from Callum Black.
Pienaar nailed the ensuing penalty to earn his team a healthy five-point cushion, making it 11-6. The hosts needed to inject urgency, and they responded by thundering into Ulster territory.
The Ulster defence repelled their incursion initially, but the defensive line became stretched on 60 minutes allowing Russell a chance to reduce the deficit.
The fly-half made no mistake with the kick to bring the Warriors within two points at 11-9. The visitors retained their composure well in the face of the Warrior’s onslaught, though, and marched up field to earn another penalty attempt on 66 minutes. With the assistance of the wind, Pienaar nailed a monster kick to make it 14-9.
As the game entered the last ten minutes, you could cut the tension with a knife as both sides scrambled furiously for ascendancy.
In that spirit, Glasgow resolutely pounded the visitors’ defence with big replacements Ryan Wilson and Leone Nakarawa punching holes.
Ulster’s rearguard acquitted themselves admirably, but with legs tiring, something had to give. With the Ulster line severely stretched on 76 minutes, van der Merwe eventually sneaked in at the right hand corner. Russell converted to edge the Warriors into a one point lead with only minutes remaining.
Ulster desperately tried to regain their lead, but were spent from their earlier exertions, and the Belfast men proved unable to penetrate the home defence.
The hosts obdurately held on, and even had the luxury of running down the clock with a last ditch Russell penalty. Heartbreak in the end for a devastated Ulster, but it is Glasgow that marches on to the final in Belfast.
Tries: Van der Merwe
Pens: Russell 2, Hogg
Pens: Pienaar 3
Glasgow: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Richie Vernon, 12 Peter Horne, 11 Niko Matawalu, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Adam Ashe, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Josh Strauss, 5 Al Kellock (c), 4 Jonny Gray, 3 Rossouw de Klerk, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Mike Cusack, 19 Leone Nakarawa, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 Duncan Weir, 22 Sean Lamont, 23 DTH van der Merwe.
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Darren Cave, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Ricky Lutton, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Stuart McCloskey, 23 Michael Allen.
Referee: George Clancy
Assistant Referees: John Lacey, Dudley Phillips
TMO: Gwyn Bowden