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Cooney the hero as Ulster seal dramatic late victory

Dan McFarland’s men remain unbeaten in Europe and retake top spot in Pool Three of the Heineken Champions Cup.

Ulster's John Cooney takes the winning kick of the game.
Ulster's John Cooney takes the winning kick of the game.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ulster Rugby 25

Harlequins 24

Adam McKendry reports from Kingspan Stadium

SOMEHOW, EVEN WHEN they look dead and buried, Ulster continue to win games, and this one could be one of the most important they win all season.

Having done all the hard work by winning away to Bath, and then following it up by seeing off Clermont a week later, Elia Elia’s three-minute brace of tries in the second half threatened to undo all that at Kingspan Stadium, as Harlequins came within two minutes of stealing a win from the Irish province.

But this team, this year, has learned never to say die. Up stepped John Cooney with time almost elapsed to kick one of the biggest penalties of Ulster’s season so far to squeak a one-point win out of the tie and ensure Dan McFarland’s men remain unbeaten in Europe and retake top spot in Pool Three of the Heineken Champions Cup.

It looked like it was all going to come crashing down around them, Elia’s double around the hour mark giving the Premiership outfit a nine-point lead, and even when Adam McBurney crossed for a late score, it seemed like it was still too high a mountain to climb, but Cooney held his nerve at the death to seal the win.

Stuart McCloskey was at his rampaging best in midfield, setting up Sean Reidy for the opening score and crossing for a try of his own, as he aims to force his way into Andy Farrell’s plans for the Six Nations, while Cooney’s clutch mentality will surely have impressed the national coach once more.

It means Ulster have now tasted victory in eight of their opening 10 games of the season as they somehow continue this winning momentum and have taken another big step towards returning to the knockouts in Europe, which they have repeatedly said is the ultimate ambition, while also severely hindering Quins’ own hopes of doing so.

However, questions remain over a scrum that creaked under pressure from Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler, while their turnover rate will once again be something that will be highlighted in mid-week as they lost the ball no less than 17 times.

The two sides traded penalties inside the opening 10 minutes as despite Ulster dominating possession and territory, and Cooney giving them the lead off the tee, Quins pegged them back when Smith slotted a kick of his own.

But Ulster really should have pulled ahead, only for Cooney’s decision making to let him down once again. After breaking down the blindside off a maul and shrugging the tackle of Danny Care, the scrum-half only had Gabriel Ibitoye to beat, with Louis Ludik on his outside, but instead of feeding his team-mate, the scrum-half went for it himself and was halted by Ibitoye.

The visitors were then perhaps lucky they weren’t reduced to 14 men when Elia thundered into Ludik, seemingly with no arms, only for the referee and TMO to decide there was nothing in it, and from there they set about making Cooney pay for his wastefulness by taking the lead.

elia-elia-scores-a-try Harlequins' Elia Elia scores a try. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The English side showed some good ball retention that saw Michele Campagnaro and James Lang make a pair of nice carries in midfield to open up the space for Sinckler to drop a pop pass into the hands of Alex Dombrandt, and the No.8 barged his way through Alan O’Connor’s tackle and over for the score.

In stark contrast, Ulster just could not get any of their passes to stick as Stuart McCloskey offloaded into touch after a break through and then an offload from Luke Marshall hit the deck when also inside the 22 as the province tried to force the issue.

But they would go in at the interval level, and like a lot of their tries recently, it came off turnover ball. Iain Henderson ripped the ball off Dombrandt in the tackle, Ulster took over possession inside the Quins 22 and when Billy Burns dropped a cross-field kick into the hands of McCloskey, he had the awareness to flick the ball back inside for Sean Reidy to cross for their opening five-pointer.

Having seen very little stick in the first half, it took Ulster all of four minutes of the second half to double their tally of tries as they burst out of the blocks quickly. The forwards did the hard yards, grinding away in the 22, before the space opened up wide for Luke Marshall to skip the pass all the way to McCloskey, who charged over the line despite the interests of Travis Ismaiel.

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Harlequins lost centre Campagnaro in the build-up to the try, the Italian shipping an accidental hit to the head, and their confidence was further shaken when Smith missed the chance to make it a two-point game by hitting the post with what looked to be a straightforward penalty.

But in an instant that was forgotten about as Elia put the Stoop side in the ascendancy with a quickfire brace that stunned Kingspan Stadium into shocked silence as their side capitulated in quick succession.

The Samoan hooker got his first when he broke off the back of a maul to crash over from close range, and then finished off an incredible flowing counter-attack from the restart, Alex Dombrandt intercepting Cooney’s pass on his own line and nearly going the length of the pitch, with Elia rounding it off by picking from the base of a ruck and going over.

It looked like that might be a mountain too big for Ulster to ascend, and even when they pulled it back to a one-score game when McBurney went over from the back of an Ulster maul for his second try for his province with 12 minutes to go, it seemed it was too little, too late.

But when McBurney was taken out off the ball by Tevita Cavubati with just two minutes showing on the clock, up stepped the nerveless Cooney to slot the penalty and then boot the ball off the pitch with the final act of the game to send the home fans into raptures.

It wasn’t pretty, far from it. But Ulster keep winning, and the promised land of the quarter-finals is still well within sight. And that, right now, is all that matters.

For Ulster
Tries: Reidy, McCloskey, McBurney
Cons: Cooney (2 from 3)
Pens: Cooney (2 from 2)
For Harlequins
Tries: Dombrandt, Elia (2)
Cons: Smith (3 from 3)
Pen: Smith (1 from 2)

ULSTER RUGBY (15-9) Jacob Stockdale; Louis Ludik, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy (Matt Faddes 74); Billy Burns, John Cooney; (1-8) Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring (Adam McBurney 61), Marty Moore (Tom O’Toole 74); Alan O’Connor (Kieran Treadwell 58), Iain Henderson; Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee (Matthew Rea 61).
Subs not used: Andrew Warwick, David Shanahan, Bill Johnston.
HARLEQUINS (15-9) Ross Chisholm; Travis Ismaiel, Michele Campagnaro (Francis Saili 45), James Lang, Gabriel Ibitoye (Vereniki Goneva 61); Marcus Smith, Danny Care (Martin Landajo 68); (1-8) Joe Marler, Elia Elia, Kyle Sinckler (Simon Kerrod 68); Stephan Lewies, Tevita Cavubati; Semi Kunatani (Tom Lawday 58), Chris Robshaw, Alex Dombrandt.
Subs not used: Jack Musk, Nick Auterac, Dino Lamb.John Cooney (Ulster)

Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)

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