Edinburgh’s Guinness PRO14 play-off hopes took a potentially fatal blow as they were outclassed by a determined Ulster side transformed from the error-prone outfit thrashed a week ago against Glasgow.
Benetton’s loss to Munster in Italy last night leaves Edinburgh still with slither of a chance, but they will need to defeat Glasgow at Scotstoun in two weeks, hope the Italians lose their derby to their hapless rivals Zebre and Scarlets lose one of their last two games.
It’s more likely will be left looking for a one-off Heineken Champions’ Cup qualifier – probably against Cardiff and Ospreys – rather than the season-ending play-offs, Ulster securing their place in that stage of the season with this win.
After their awful performance losing 30-7 at Scotstoun last week, it was a massively different Ulster side, especially in defence where they dealt easily with Edinburgh’s somewhat pedestrian attempts to open them up.
The visitors had three tries themselves before Edinburgh finally bothered the scoreboard through John Barclay, but Billy Burns’ late try confirmed the bonus point victory and secured second place in Conference B behind runaway leaders Leinster.
The key was the return of man of the match Iain Henderson, the Ireland and Lions lock stiffening the defence and securing the lineout ripped apart in Glasgow seven days earlier.
“We got beaten in every department,” admitted head coach Richard Cockerill. “We just didn’t function and ultimately we didn’t perform on the biggest stage; we missed touch with penalties, didn’t hold on to the ball, everything went wrong.
“It’s going to be tough to get in the play-offs now, we have to get ourselves into position to qualify for the Heineken Cup. Tonight was a stark reminder that if we don’t get it right then we
Edinburgh’s first half was even worse than last week’s first 40 against the Scarlets, and a try right on the stroke of half-time left them with a huge mountain to climb to stay in the play-off race.
There was more threat from Ulster with ball in hand from the outset, Jacob Stockdale stepping out of a Mark Bennett tackle to set up the position that led to Pierre Schoeman being penalised and John Cooney kicked the visitors ahead.
On their next attack Stockdale’s well-weighted kick had Pyrgos retreating and under pressure. Ulster won the ball, and Grant Gilchrist did well to rip the ball for an Ulsterman only for it to fall into the lap of Jordi Murphy, who dived over, Cooney converting.
Edinburgh didn’t help their own cause with Jaco van der Walt having a nightmare, hitting the post with a penalty and missing touch with two more before he limped off after half an hour.
WP Nel’s turnover under his own posts and a fine Pyrgos tackle on Cooney in the 22 kept Edinburgh in the hunt but when strong runs from Duhan van der Merwe and Schoeman opened up Ulster, Hamish Watson’s offload to Bennett close to the line fell forward.
Edinburgh badly needed any kind of score before half-time but replacement stand-off Simon Hickey kicked out on the full, and Ulster took full advantage, wing Robert Baloucoune going around Darcy Graham too easily to score an unconverted try in the corner.
Edinburgh came back out with a greater tempo and threw on Simon Berghan and John Barclay, but a Graham knock on stalled their momentum and Pyrgos kicked out on the full – another glaring error – to set up Ulster again.
Stockdale’s presence into the line again caused the Edinburgh defence to pause fatally, and the diminutive Rob Lyttle was able to carry three defenders with him over the line, Cooney’s conversion taking Ulster to an unassailable 22-0 lead.
Edinburgh finally got something in attack on the hour in the unlikely form of Barclay, who threw an outrageous dummy on the charge to open a gap in the midfield and then sprinted in for the try from 20 metres, Hickey converting.
But Ulster’s defence quickly reasserted its authority, and Burns strolled through a tried defensive line to score behind the posts with three minutes left, Cooney adding the conversion.
Edinburgh: D Graham; D Hoyland, M Bennett, M Scott, D van der Merwe; J van der Walt, H Pyrgos; P Schoeman, S McInally (capt), WP Nel; B Toolis, G Gilchrist; M Bradbury, H Watson, V Mata.
Replacements: R Ford for McInally 68, A Dell for Schoeman 63, S Berghan for Nel 46, C Hunter-Hill for Toolis 68, J Barclay for Bradbury 49, C Shiel for Pyrgos 64, S Hickey for van der Walt 32, G Taylor for Hoyland 45.
Ulster: J Stockdale; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; I Henderson (capt), K Treadwell; N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Replacements: J Andrews for Herring 72, A Warwick for O’Sullivan 72, R Kane for Moore 10, A O’Connor for Treadwell 62, S Reidy for Timoney 67, A Kernohan for Baloucoune 49.