Edinburgh blew a 12-point second-half lead and once again fell short in a knockout game as Ulster clinched the Guinness PRO14 final place with Ian Madigan’s penalty with the last kick of the game.
The capital side’s grip on the game seemed solid with 20 minutes left but they allowed the Ulstermen to take complete control for the last quarter, two tries from driving mauls bringing the scores level.
Madigan, the Irish international stand-off who fell out of favour when he moved to France, proved the match winner when he kicked a touchline conversion to tie the scores with five minutes left and then landed a long penalty with the last kick after Edinburgh’s replacement hooker Mike Willemse was ruled to have intentionally knocked on.
Ulster looked out of it at 19-7 down with 20 minutes left but they were completely dominant in possession in that final spell, and were clearly deserved winners to go to next week’s final against Leinster.
Edinburgh fell out of the game completely when they had the game won, and lost a fourth knockout game on their own turf in the last three years, their usual good discipline deserting them just when they needed it most.
The new interpretations at the breakdown have meant more turnovers in general but the constant string of them for both sides meant there was little flow to the first half.
Edinburgh clearly were trying to get van der Merwe in the game as much as possible with good effect, as three times he got away down the left touchline but couldn’t find the inside pass for the the potential score.
The wing was caught a couple of times holding on but forced a turnover of his own joining in a defensive maul inside the home 22.
It was a maul after a kick to the corner that allowed Edinburgh to take the lead on 14 minutes. The push stalled almost immediately but Ulster left the shortside undermanned and Stuart McInally spun off the back and too easily through John Cooney’s tackle for an unconverted try.
Ulster had their moments and possession inside the Edinburgh 22 often enough but spilled one ball under pressure, were turned over and penalised at a scrum, and then Magnus Bradbury held them up as they tried to get another drive going.
Darcy Graham felled Jacob Stockdale at full pace with a textbook tackle and won the turnover as well as the ball continued to change hands with bewildering speed.
On the last play of the half Chris Dean made a clean break into the 22 but couldn’t get the pass away, and Ulster almost counterattacked themselves on the turnover before deciding the dressing room was the better place to regroup.
Edinburgh took six minutes to increase their lead after the break when Rory Sutherland’s excellent tackle on McCloskey forced a penalty for an Ulsterman off his feet.
Edinburgh were patient with their drives inside the Ulster 22 before Dean and van der Walt combined deftly break the defensive line and allow Graham over in the corner, the stand-off adding the conversion for a 12-0 lead.
Edinburgh almost were away and clear when Mark Bennett counterattacked from his own 22, broke a tackle and into the Ulster half but his pass inside to an unmarked Groom was intercepted by the retreating Billy Burns.
And as the game got looser Ulster started to attack with greater purpose and make extra men out wide, Rob Lyttle’s brilliant change of direction beating two defenders for a score under the posts and a seven-pointer with Burns’ conversion after 53 minutes played.
But Edinburgh looked the better side in a structured game and they quickly replied within five minutes, Hamish Watson attacking with a penalty advantage and busting through tackles to set up Dean for the third try, Van der Walt restoring the 12-point lead with the conversion.
But Ulster got the restart and the pressure on, and finally one of their mauls from an attacking lineout was effective for Rob Herring to score, although the try went unconverted.
Ulster were within sight again but after Kinghorn was caught holding on a threatening series with their big men McCloskey and Coetzee prominent ended with another knock-on as Edinburgh’s defence held.
But Edinburgh were pinned in their own territory and two penalties gave Ulster another driving chance, replacement hooker John Andrew finishing after their patiently worked maul with five minutes left on the clock, replacement 10 Ian Madigan tying the score with the conversion.
Edinburgh just couldn’t hold on to possession and Willemse’s frantic attempt at an interception in midfield was ruled an intentional knock-on, giving Madigan the decisive 45 metre penalty chance with the last kick.
Edinburgh: Blair Kinghorn; Darcy Graham, Mark Bennett, Chris Dean, Duhan van der Merwe; Jaco van der Walt, Nic Groom; Rory Sutherland, Stuart McInally (capt), WP Nel; Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist; Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson, Viliame Mata.
Replacements: Mike Willemse for McInally 68, Pierre Schoeman for Sutherland 52, Simon Berghan for Nel 47, Andrew Davidson for Toolis 68, Jamie Ritchie for Mata 63, Charlie Shiel for Groom 76, Nathan Chamberlain, George Taylor for Dean 59.
Ulster: Jacob Stockdale; Louis Ludik, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle; Billy Burns (capt), John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole; Alan O’Connor, Sam Carter; Matthew Rea, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee.
Replacements: John Andrew for Herring 70, Jack McGrath for O’Sullivan 52, Marty Moore for O’Toole 52, Kieran Treadwell for Carter 49, Sean Reidy for Murphy 47, Ally Mathewson for Cooney 40, Ian Madigan for Burns 70, Michael Lowry for Ludik 40.
Ref: Frank Murphy (IRFU)