Ulster fell at the penultimate hurdle in the GUINNESS PRO12 play-offs for the second year in a row, losing tonight’s semi-final by two points to Glasgow Warriors who qualify for their second consecutive final.
Finn Russell’s 77th-minute conversion of DTH van der Merwe’s try made the difference in the closest of semi-finals at Scotstoun Stadium, a game which Ulster had led since early in the first half thanks to Chris Henry’s try.
However, table toppers Glasgow were able to establish a foothold in the final quarter after 60 minutes of Ulster domination, and the visitors’ lead was slight enough to be overturned by the seven points from van der Merwe and Russell in the dying moments.
The Warriors will now travel to Kingspan Stadium next Saturday to vie for their first ever PRO12 title, with either Munster or the Ospreys, who play tomorrow at Thomond Park, their opponents.
Following on from last weekend’s 32-10 final round defeat at the same venue, Ulster head coach Neil Doak made no fewer than 11 changes to the starting line-up, with only full-back Louis Ludik, prop Ricky Lutton, lock Lewis Stevenson and flanker Henry retained from that side.
Ulster bossed the first half, expertly controlling play and keeping the Warriors’ forays into their half to a minimum but, crucially, not converting their dominance into as comprehensive a lead as they should have.
Once Ruan Pienaar had dispatched a second minute penalty from in front of the posts, Glasgow roared straight back and forced a penalty of their own as Roger Wilson failed to roll away sufficiently quickly for referee George Clancy’s liking, and Russell leveled from wide on the left.
Good kicking and set piece management brought Ulster into the Glasgow half with ball in hand on the 10-minute mark, but a knock-on followed by an infringement presented Stuart Hogg with a kick from just inside his own half, which the Scotland and Lions full-back – a try scorer in the sides’ round 22 meeting – converted with aplomb.
Ulster replied with interest just before the end of the first quarter. Pienaar’s long looped delivery from the base of a ruck found Paddy Jackson on the 22, and two flat, accurate passes from the out-half and Ludik released Henry who did well to hug the touchline and run in his second try in as many games.
Pienaar’s conversion veered wide at 8-6, but a great aerial take by Ludik from Jackson’s clearance moments later kept the Warriors under pressure until the half hour had elapsed. Possession was eventually conceded when Gilroy was pulled up for holding on too long in the tackle.
However, an overthrow at a subsequent lineout gifted the ball back to Ulster, and a strong diagonal run from Tommy Bowe just before half-time got Ludik to within centimetres of the whitewash before he was crowded out and held up by multiple Glasgow defenders.
The resulting five-metre scrum, which had to be reset a couple of times, saw Lutton penalised in the front row, sending Ulster off at the interval with a two-point lead they more than deserved.
Glasgow came into the second period with the look of a side that had been on the wrong end of a half-time hairdryer team talk from head coach Gregor Townsend, exerting severe pressure in attack for a good five minutes before a knock-on from Russell bought Ulster gave much-needed relief.
The clock ticked on with no additions to the scoreboard, Ulster doing well to contain everything Glasgow threw at them, and even edging further ahead on 56 minutes courtesy of a Pienaar penalty after the Scots’ front row had popped up in the scrum.
The hosts wasted no time striking straight back, Niko Matawalu just losing out in the race down the right flank with Gilroy and Pienaar before Russell slotted home a central penalty on the hour mark to reduce the gap to a mere two points once more – 11-9.
Pienaar quickly reestablished the five-point gap with a sublime kick from just the limit of his range on 67 minutes. As Glasgow began to take more risks with the clock running down, Russell kicked a 74th minute penalty to touch in the knowledge that a converted try would see them home.
The Warriors worked their lineout well, recycling smartly to get themselves close to the posts five metres out. The Ulster defence held steadfast, however, forcing Russell to return play out wide where replacement winger van der Merwe gratefully picked up for the try in the right corner, with the prospect of a difficult conversion to come.
Out-half Russell showed his match-winning class by coolly adding the decisive extras from out wide to dash Ulster dreams and deny Doak’s men the chance to contest a PRO12 final in their own backyard in Belfast.