Ulster got their Heineken Cup campaign off to a winning start on Friday with a hard-fought 22-16 win over Leicester at Ravenhill.
Ulster got their Heineken Cup campaign off to a winning start on Friday with a hard-fought but well-earned 22-16 win over Leicester at Ravenhill.
A classy kicking performance from Paddy Jackson saw Ulster emerge as winners in an absorbing, if scrappy contest.
Jackson's boot, and a try from Tommy Bowe, cancelled out a try from Leicester loosehead Logovii Mulipola, and a fine kicking performance from opposing -half Toby Flood. Despite Leicester's endeavour, the home side, who led at half time, just about deserved it.
The game got off to a thunderous start at a raucous Ravenhill, with Ulster's runners testing the mettle of the English visitors. This early pressure saw the hosts nearly score in the corner in the second minute, but a wayward pass by the returning Bowe scuppered the chance.
And the formidable Leicester scrum was therefore able to relieve the pressure on the English side. Thus it was the visitors who opened the scoring on 6 minutes, when big prop Mulipola powered over in the corner. Talisman Flood duly added the extras.
The opening stages resembled an aerial bombardment, as both teams attempted to unsettle their opponents through tactical kicking.
Ulster won a penalty on 14 minutes, and drove the ball deep into Tigers' territory. From the ensuing five-metre line-out, the visitors collapsed the Ulster maul. Ulster played the advantage from the ensuing penalty, and a terrific cross-field kick by Jackson saw Bowe touch down for Ulster's only try. Jackson slotted the conversion to level the score at 7-7.
But parity was short lived, and Flood restored the Tigers' lead with a well-struck penalty on 19 minutes, to make it 7-10.
And the technical proficiency of the Leicester scrum saw the English club secure forward ascendancy for large portions of the half, with Lion Dan Cole giving Ulster loose-head Tom Court a torrid time.
But Ulster's defensive resilience kept them in the contest, and Jackson levelled the scoreline on 31 minutes, following a spell of concerted pressure.
By now, last season's Pro12 runners-up were giving as good as they were getting in the physicality stakes. And the Belfast men were able to capitalise on their renewed momentum, and nearly crossed the Tigers' line on 38 minutes, but a wily Leicester rearguard gave away a penalty rather than concede more. And so it was Jackson who gave his side the lead for the first time when he nailed a penalty on the cusp of half time, making it 13-10.
The second half nearly got off to the perfect start for the hosts, when Jackson intercepted in his own 22, and ran the length of the pitch to touch down.
But the referee whistled him back for offside, and Flood equalised the game much to the consternation of the Ravenhill faithful.
And the TMO further incurred the ire of the partisan home crowd on 48 minutes; when he correctly ruled out a Darren Cave try due to a forward pass by Luke Marshall.
The Ulstermen seemed to start the second period with greater urgency, and the introduction of Ruan Pienaar infused the Irish side with renewed impetus. Jackson had an opportunity to restore his team's lead on 54 minutes, but he badly scuffed his kick. U
lster's cause was aided on 58 minutes when Leicester number eight Jordan Crane was yellow carded for cynically obstructing Pienaar. The fly-half converted the resultant penalty to make it 16-13 to the Ravenhill outfit.
Their lead seemed to have been short-lived when the Tigers were awarded a penalty on 61 minutes, but the usually bankable Flood missed the kick. Really Ulster should have put the English kingpins away by this stage, but the Irish province lacked the clinical touch.
But it was Jackson who extended his side's advantage on 65 minutes, following some tremendous work by home tight-head, Declan Fitzpatrick to make it 19-13.
Although Leicester remained incredibly physical though their pack, back rowers Salvi and Slater being particularly effective, there were times when their second half ascendancy threatened to become domination.
Jackson increased the lead to 9 points on 72 minutes by nailing a penalty, following some powerful surges from the home forwards. Flood crucially brought his team back within losing bonus-point range when he slotted a penalty on 76 minutes.
The bonus point was just reward for a powerful and committed performance from the two-time winners. For Ulster, this imperfect win gets their European campaign off to a creditable start.
Pens: Jackson 5
Pens: Flood 2, Williams
Yellow card: Crane
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Roger Wilson, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (c), 3 Declan Fitzpatrick, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Stuart Olding, 23 Michael Allen.
Leicester Tigers: 15 Niall Morris, 14 Miles Benjamin, 13 Vereniki Goneva, 12 Dan Bowden, 11 Adam Thompstone, 10 Toby Flood (c), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Ed Slater, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Louis Deacon, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Logovi'i Mulipola.
Replacements: 16 Neil Briggs, 17 Boris Stankovich, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Graham Kitchener, 20 Thomas Waldrom, 21 David Mele, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Terrence Hepetema.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Christophe Berdos (France), StÃ©phane Boyer (France)
Television match official: Bernard Dal Maso (France)
By Rory McGimpsey