Ulster ‘A’ secured a hard-fought 29-24 bonus point win over Hartpury at the Gillman’s Ground, joining Cornish Pirates and the Scarlets Premiership Select in a three-way tie at the top of British & Irish Cup Pool 5.
Fleet-footed winger David Busby got the crucial score for the Ulstermen in the very last play of the game, making sure he was first to a kick through to touch down and snatch a vital victory on the road.
Ulster 'A' enjoyed the majority of possession in the early stages of this round 3 fixture and opened the scoring on 13 minutes, turning over Hartpury inside the Ulster 22, then running the length of the field in two phases before lock Matthew Dalton crossed the whitewash. Johnny McPhillips added the extra two points to make it 7-0.
Out-half McPhillips almost pushed Ulster further in front with a 50-metre penalty but it drifted just wide, before Hartpury, who are currently third-from-bottom in the English Championship, responded by driving over from a lineout maul. Prop Dan Murphy was the scorer.
Hartpury crossed again in the 32nd minute when centre Luke Eves crashed over after an attacking scrum. Out-half Lloyd Evans' successful conversion put the home side 12-7 in front. Despite controlling possession for the remainder of the half, the hosts were unable to extend their lead before the interval.
Ulster 'A', who were captained by Academy back rower Greg Jones for the first time, came out of the blocks faster in the second half. Just two minutes in, centre Callum Patterson profited from a quick tap and burst forward by influential scrum half Jonny Stewart, with the Hartpury defence napping, to square things up at 12-all.
Six minutes later, Banbridge speedster Robert Lyttle took advantage of some weak tackling to race over and put Ulster 'A' back in front. Hartpury came back with a purple patch of pressure but the Ulster 'A' defence stood up to the test manfully, albeit that second row Peter Browne was lost to the sin-bin.
It appeared that Hartpury had missed their opportunity until scrum half Harry Cochrane found a chink in the visitors' rearguard and sprinted in from 40 metres for a converted try, with the scoreboard now showing 19 points apiece.
The nip-and-tuck fare continued as Ulster 'A' responded almost immediately, the pack taking play up to the Hartpury line and hooker Adam McBurney finishing off a well-executed lineout drive for the bonus point score.
Hartpury bagged a bonus point of their own in the 67th minute, replacement James Williams making a break and number 8 Darrell Dyer was up in support to touch down. Evans' conversion attempt went just wide, leaving the sides level again at 24-all.
With few clear-cut scoring chances in the final 10 minutes, it looked like a draw was on the cards. However, with Ulster 'A' pressing high up the pitch, the ball was turned over and then hacked through, with Busby darted through to seize maximum points for his battling side.
Giving his reaction afterwards, Ulster 'A' head coach Kieran Campbell, whose side are now level on nine points with Cornish Pirates and the Scarlets Premiership Select, said: “The guys had bought into having to be relentless and I think we showed tremendous character and resolve. We played very well in the first 20 minutes and got into a little lead.
“Unfortunately there were a few too many errors which let Hartpury into it. The second half we started very well and we needed to maintain that consistency and performance but unfortunately they grew back into the game. But we showed tremendous character to keep get the result in the 82nd minute.”
He added: “We had to get a result and we had to get a bonus point as anything less would have really made the pool difficult to get out of. We're in a really good position now and another good result at home to Hartpury (next Saturday in Ballymena) gives us an excellent chance to qualify with the Pirates coming to us after Christmas.”
Referee: Karl Dickson (England)