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Dublin: 6 °C Monday 22 October, 2018

Ulster end opening game hoodoo, Stockdale stars and more talking points

The northern province beat Wasps 19-9 at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night.

Ryan Bailey reports from Kingspan Stadium

Stuart McCloskey scores a try Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

ULSTER PRODUCED AN improved second-half display to see off Wasps in their Champions Cup opener on Friday night. Our match report from Kingspan Stadium can be found here and below we take a closer look at the main talking points from the game.

Ulster up and running

Having lost their opening game in this competition in each of the last three years, and subsequently failed to advance from their group, Ulster needed little reminding of how important it was to come out of the blocks quickly this season.

And Les Kiss’ side weren’t prepared to fluff their lines on the opening night, even if it took them until the hour mark to rally and eventually put Wasps away.

Having huffed and puffed during an error-strewn and frustrating first half, Ulster clicked into gear after slipping 9-3 behind and the contest’s defining period arrived when the hosts struck twice in as many second half minutes through Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey.

Kiss admitted afterwards it was a ‘massive’ victory for his side and certainly one of the key moments in the game was when Iain Henderson, captaining his province for the first time, turned down three points to kick for the corner.

With the game so delicately poised and scoring opportunities relatively limited up until that point, it was a bold move from the Ireland international but it ultimately paid dividends as Stockdale went over in the corner a few phases later.

From there, Ulster went on to take complete control of the game.

“When you watch a game and see a team made a decision like that on TV or from an outsider’s point of view you can think, ‘Flip, that’s ballsy, you maybe should have gone for the posts,’” Henderson said.

“However you can definitely get a feel for the momentum of a game and I felt we were getting a lot of go forward ball, our forwards felt like we were on top of them, we felt our maul hadn’t quite got to the level we wanted it to and we could make something of it, and we had that in the bag from the week.

John Cooney Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“We knew from the short turnaround they’d be starting to lag at that time of the game, we just needed to get into their 22.”

And so they did, scoring through Stockdale and then again when McCloskey finished off a move involving the 21-year-old and the outstanding Charles Piutau.

The Stockdale-Piutau partnership

Jacob Stockdale is fast emerging as the most exciting young prospect in the country, as he played the role of match-winner for the second week running at Kingspan Stadium.

Athletic, pacy and a clinical ability to finish, the winger produced another eye-catching display and maintained his record of scoring in each of his five appearances for Ulster this season.

His superb one-handed finish in the left corner turned the game in his side’s favour and two minutes later he combined with Piutau again to tear Wasps apart and clinch the points for Ulster.

Between them, they combined for 235 metres gained off an incredible 28 carries while Stockdale also showed another side to his maturing game by keeping Christian Wade quiet all evening.

Overall, Stockdale now has 14 tries in just 29 games for the northern province and if you take his international debut score against USA in June into consideration, he has scored six tries in his last seven games.

Piutau, meanwhile, came back to haunt his old club by creating both tries and along with Stockdale was the standout performer in a game otherwise short on quality. The fullback’s influence grew as the game wore on and he brilliantly looped around Wade before straightening and releasing his younger team-mate to do the rest.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates after the game Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The pair have formed a hugely exciting partnership and are becoming an increasingly effective double-act, with their match-winning intervention last week against Connacht followed by an equally impressive and game-defining contribution here.

Wounded Wasps

Dai Young’s side have now lost five consecutive games as their domestic struggles continued into Europe, with Christian Lealiifano’s two late penalties ensuring the Premiership side didn’t even leave Belfast with a consolatory bonus point.

Indiscipline cost the visitors hugely in the first half — they conceded 13 penalties — and although they managed to wrestle themselves into a 9-3 lead heading into the third quarter, Ulster were full value for their victory once they seized the initiative.

The visitors weren’t helped by a five-day turnaround from last Sunday’s defeat to Saracens and a further depletion of their resources after Brendan Macken, the former Leinster centre, and Tom Cruse were both forced off during the opening 20 minutes and Tom Young followed at half-time.

Macken was withdrawn with a suspected concussion which was a great shame given the chance he had been given to impress in the Wasps midfield, while Cruse went off with a broken thumb and Young a groin strain.

“When you’re down people run and kick you in the nuts, don’t they?” Young said afterwards. “The bounce of the ball is not going our way at the minute. We’ve just got to dust ourselves off, keep going and at some point I’m sure our luck will turn.”

Dai Young Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Wasps have now lost seven of their last eight games against Irish teams and already face an uphill task to qualify from Pool 1 with next week’s home game against Harlequins already do-or-die territory.

The loss of Coetzee

Even before kick off on Friday night, Ulster fans were left reeling by the news Marcell Coetzee will now miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on his knee in South Africa.

The Springbok featured in the opening Pro14 game of the season against the Cheetahs here at the start of September and although he’s only played five times since his arrival in 2016, his loss is a huge blow.

And it showed during a lifeless first half at Ravenhill as Ulster desperately required some go-forward ball to inject a semblance momentum into their performance and the contest. It finally arrived after the interval as the hosts turned the screw but against better, more clinical opposition in this competition they may have been punished for it.

To their credit, Sean Reidy and Robbie Diack were both excellent in the backrow while Jean Deysel carried powerfully, but a player of Coetzee’s calibre is always going to be missed in the engine room.

Afterwards, Kiss said that he would not be dipping into the market to bring in a medical joker, adding that the province would support Coetzee in his nine-month rehabilitation by ‘sticking by him.’

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Ryan Bailey

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