Ulster ‘A’ took a significant step towards a spot in the British & Irish quarter-finals thanks to a 25-14 bonus point win over Cornish Pirates at Shaw’s Bridge tonight.
Going into the round 5 clash in Belfast, both Ulster 'A' and the Pirates were level at the summit on 14 points each, meaning the Ulstermen's third bonus point triumph on the trot now puts them in pole position to top Pool 5 and book their place in the knockout stages.
The Pirates started the game the brightest, with their forwards using their considerable bulk to force Ulster 'A' deep into their own territory. An infringement at the breakdown presented the Pirates with a kickable penalty in the 12th minute and out-half Laurence May confidently dispatched the place-kick for 3-0.
The home side played their way into the contest and winger Robert Lyttle showed superb speed and footwork to beat the Pirates cover and dive over in the right corner on 22 minutes. Peter Nelson's well-struck touchline conversion put Ulster 'A' 7-3 in front, and they would not relinquish that lead for the remainder.
The province added to their tally immediately from the restart as Jack Owens and then Aaron Cairns both made breaks, before the ball was recycled for hooker and captain John Andrew to run in an easy finish. Four minutes before the break, May landed another penalty to reduce the deficit to 12-6 at half-time.
Once again, it was the Pirates who came out of the blocks faster in the second half, and winger Alex O'Meara neatly collected his own grubber kick to touch down just three minutes after the restart, leaving the minimum between the sides.
However, Ulster 'A' hit back in swift fashion, as young replacement hooker Zack McCall charged down an attempted box-kick before gathering and finishing off to the left of the posts.
The Pirates pack then turned the screw once again, piling on sustained pressure inside the province's 22, which saw several attacking scrums on the five-metre line. However, the youthful Ulster 'A' pack defended their try-line manfully, restricting the Pirates to just another three-pointer.
Five minutes from time, the jet-heeled Lyttle, who had landed a 68th minute penalty for a 20-14 lead, got over for the decisive score. From a lineout on the Pirates 22, Ulster 'A' switched play from left to right, with Lyttle darting in for his second try of the night and the hosts' bonus point score.
The visitors once again ploughed forward in search of a late response to secure a losing bonus point. However, the Ulster 'A' rearguard once again remained resolute, standing firm and denying the Pirates any reward for their efforts over the 80 minutes.
Speaking afterwards, Ulster 'A' head coach Kieran Campbell heaped the praise on his young team, saying: “For a group of young men to perform like that tonight was exceptional. You've got guys there who are literally just out of school, and the resilience and resolve they showed, was something they should be proud of personally, and in terms of our Academy, we're really proud of.
“Particularly at the end of the game, it would've been easy for them to give up a bonus point that would be very important for Pirates in terms of their qualification hopes. They've worked exceptionally hard over the past couple of weeks, knowing it was a must-win game, so to deal with that pressure tonight is very impressive.”
Next up for the Ulster 'A' team is an away trip to Scarlets Premiership Select in their final pool encounter next Saturday, in the knowledge that a point would be enough for them to top the pool.
Referee: Elgan Williams (Wales)