A disastrous opening quarter left Ulster playing catch up in Friday night’s Heineken Cup Pool 2 opener. Ulster leaked four tries to Gloucester inside the first 22 minutes at Ravenhill and although Matt McCullough and Paddy Wallace both touched down before the break, the English visitors’ lead was never truly threatened.
HEINEKEN CUP: POOL 2: Friday, November 9
ULSTER 14 GLOUCESTER 32, Ravenhill (Att: 13,000)
Scorers: Ulster: Tries: Matt McCullough, Paddy Wallace; Cons: Paddy Wallace 2
Gloucester: Tries: Lesley Vainikolo, Mike Tindall, Ryan Lamb, James Simpson-Daniel, Iain Balshaw; Cons: Ryan Lamb 2; Pen: Ryan Lamb
This match could really have turned Ulster’s season around but now after five defeats in their opening seven games of the campaign, Mark McCall’s side are facing an uphill struggle in both the Magners League and Heineken Cup.
Gloucester did travel as the current Guinness Premiership leaders and were favourites to take the spoils, yet the manner in which they did left the bulk of the 13,000-strong crowd stunned. “Shellshocked” was how Ulster defence coach Neil Kelly described the coaching staff’s reaction.
The Cherry and Whites simply roared to victory, making the most of some basic errors from the hosts to score their bonus point try within 22 minutes of the start.
Becoming the first English side to win a competitive match at Ravenhill since 2001, Dean Ryan’s men were simply ruthless. Whether it was capitalising off an Ulster error and breaking from their 22 for a length of the field effort, the visitors had an unforgettable first quarter.
Lesley Vainikolo, Mike Tindall, Ryan Lamb, James Simpson-Daniel and Iain Balshaw all touched down as Gloucester went 29-0 in front in as many minutes.
Ulster simply had no answer and despite getting those two tries back and showing more conviction in the second half, the men in white were left ruing their error-strewn start.
Ulster’s defending has let them down in recent Magners League games and again it was their Achilles heel.
It was an encouraging opening few minutes for the home side but a surging seventh-minute run from halfway from Akapusi Qera and a clever kick from Ryan Lamb led to Heineken Cup debutant Vainikolo touching down in the corner.
Ulster attacked looking for a reply but Neil Best knocked on as the hosts pressed and the chance was lost. Gloucester soon got over for their second try as Balshaw and Simpson-Daniel combined down the right before Tindall was sent clear on the Ulster 22 and had the pace to make the try line.
On 17 minutes, a Vainikolo burst forward created the space for Lamb to slice over from five metres out for a try which he converted himself. The Gloucester out-half turned creator five minutes later for his side’s bonus point-clinching try.
Ulster tried valiantly to create a hole in the Gloucester defence but breaks from Rob Dewey and Isaac Boss led to nothing and when Lamb intercepted a pass from Wallace on the visitors’ 22, Ulster looked all at sea.
Lamb made 50 metres and had Simpson-Daniel on his shoulder in support and suddenly Gloucester had their fourth try of the night. Their fifth followed just before the half hour mark when Balshaw made the line despite the best efforts of Boss.
Lamb converted for a 29-0 buffer and Ulster were in danger of suffering their worst ever Heineken Cup defeat. However, they got a timely try just two minutes later when a brilliant left-sided break by Andrew Trimble laid the platform for McCullough’s score, with the flanker picking and going off a close-in ruck.
Wallace added the extras and while Gloucester’s set piece dominance continued up until half-time, Ulster had a decent spell of pressure in Gloucester’s 22 which led to an injury-time try for Wallace.
A quick ruck release allowed the out-half, which stepped in for the benched David Humphreys, to dummy and cross the whitewash with his conversion kick the last action of a frenetic half.
Conditions worsened in the second half, with the wind and rain increasing. Gloucester continued to look the more potent side but the space available in the opening period was now shorn up as Ulster looked to find a way back into the game.
29-14 in arrears, they needed to score first after the restart yet they could not make the most of their attacks. Wallace kicked a 50th-minute penalty to touch but Gloucester’s defence held out off the subsequent lineout drive.
Replacement Mark Bartholomeusz made 15 metres with his first run and Ulster looked primed for a try. That score never came though and it was left to Lamb to slot a 40-metre penalty through the uprights, twelve minutes from time, for the only points scored in the entire second half.
Humphreys came on for the final few minutes to try and inspire Ulster. Nonetheless, Gloucester’s lightning start meant they could comfortably see out the win and the visitors ended the game on top.
This was a deflating start to the campaign for Rory Best and company and skipper Best admitted afterwards that “there’s no hiding place for us. We’e bottom of the Magners League and we haven’t made a good start in Europe.
“There’s nothing we can do except front up on Monday and roll our sleeves up and get things back on track,” said the hooker, whose side are away to Bourgoin next weekend.
ULSTER: Bryn Cunningham; Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Rob Dewey, Mark McCrea; Paddy Wallace, Isaac Boss; Justin Fitzpatrick, Rory Best (capt), Bryan Young, Justin Harrison, Carlo Del Fava, Matt McCullough, Neil Best, Roger Wilson.
Replacements used: Ryan Caldwell for Del Fava (51 mins), Mark Bartholomeusz for Cunningham (55), Kieron Dawson for Harrison (60), David Humphreys for Dewey (68), Kieran Campbell for Boss (80). Not used: Nigel Brady, Declan Fitzpatrick.
GLOUCESTER: Iain Balshaw; James Simpson-Daniel, Mike Tindall, Anthony Allen, Lesley Vainikolo; Ryan Lamb, Rory Lawson; Nick Wood, Olivier Azam, Carlos Nieto, Peter Buxton (capt), Alex Brown, Alasdair Strokosch, Akapusi Qera, Luke Narraway.
Replacements used: Andy Titterrell for Azam (half-time), Marco Bortolami for Strokosch, Gareth Delve for Narraway (both 60), Chris Paterson for Lamb (74), Olly Morgan for Allen (76), Mike Prendergast for Lawson, Christian Califano for Wood (both 80).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)