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Hello and welcome to tonight’s liveblog as Leicester take on Ulster in the first of the Challenge Cup semi-finals. For Ulster, this is a huge game, their first European semi-final since 2012, their second trip to the penultimate stage of a major competition in 12 months, after last year’s last four win over Edinburgh in the Pro14.

We will take you right through the action as it unfolds tonight. But let us know what you think will happen in the comments section below.

Here is the Ulster team arriving at Welford Road.

For once, Leinster aren’t here to block Ulster’s path. There’s no Toulouse, either; no Saracens – none of the sides who have made life so unpleasant for them in recent European seasons. What is there is an opportunity. It may be 15 years since Ulster last won something but they’ll never have a better chance of ending that drought than now.

Here are your teams for tonight’s game.

Leicester: Steward; Porter, Moroni, Scott, Nadolo; Ford, Wigglesworth; Genge, T Youngs (capt), Cole, Wells, Green, Martin, Liebenberg, Wiese.

Replacements: Clare, De Bruin, Heyes, Lavanini, Brink, B Youngs, Henry, Murimurivalu.

Ulster 

Jacob Stockdale; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore; Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (Capt.); Matty Rea, Jordi Murphy, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy, Alby Mathewson, Michael Lowry, Will Addison.

Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France)

Big night ahead for Jacob Stockdale, Rob Herring and Iain Henderson in more ways than one with Lions assistant coaches, Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy, there to keep an eye on the Ulster trio.

An interesting column from Stuart Barnes today in The Times with the former England out-half making the point that in their ten Heineken Cup meetings, Ulster have a 7-3 win record. “A few humiliations are among those Tigers losses,” wrote Barnes.

Barnes continued: “Dan McFarland breaks down this Leicester side into three parts: the set piece, the aerial game and the heavy runners.

“Leicester’s scrum has been a potent weapon much of this season. Newcastle Falcons and Bath were almost penalised off the park. The Newcastle director of rugby, Dean Richards, noted his team were not alone in having problems with his former club’s scrum. He caustically said he didn’t know why.”

Kick off is eight minutes away. Ulster have not won anything in 15 years and that storyline has dominated the build-up to this game..

“Someone described it as a monkey on our back,” Ulster coach, Dan McFarland said. “My answer has been that I’m not carrying anyone else’s monkey. This is our semi-final. There’s a group of lads here who just want to be in the final, and that’s it.”

Let’s see if they can make it there.

Ulster enter the pitch; kick-off seconds away now.

We’re up and running here; Billy Burns gets us under way with the kick-off.

1 minute Fine start from Ulster, with big carries made by Jacob Stockdale, Nick Timoney (twice), Eric O’Sullivan and Rob Herring but after 13 phases, Robert Baloucoune spills possession. Leicester defend well.

2 minutes Nick Timoney getting bandaged up after an early clash. Play set to resume.

3 minutes After winning 26 of their 30 throws in their wins over Harlequins and Northampton, Ulster lose their first line-out of the evening. Some kick tennis follows before Tigers win a penalty when Ethan McIlroy loses out to Nadolo at the breakdown.

4 minutes Leicester out-half George Ford sends his penalty wide. It was a tricky enough angle but still, he should have nailed it.

6 minutes Penalty to Leicester; Freddie Steward takes a fine high catch and gets clobbered before landing. Ford should get this. 

7 minutes PENALTY LEICESTER (FORD) Leicester 3-0 Ulster

Georgie nails it from in front of the posts

8 minutes Penalty to Ulster, Leicester’s Liebenberg ruled offside.

Cooney is going for the posts.

9 minutes PENALTY ULSTER (COONEY)

Leicester 3-3 Ulster

From a difficult angle, Cooney lands a super kick to draw the teams level.

11 minutes penalty to Ulster after McIlroy is emptied in the air. So far we have seen some impressive carrying from the Ulster pack; O’Sullivan and Henderson both showing a thirst for work. Henderson’s footwork is sensational.

12 minutes

What looked like a superb try for Ulster is ruled out for a knock-on by Nick Timoney following a review by the TMO.

Initially it looked like a score, as McCloskey, Hume, Matty Rea and Alan O’Connor all carried well and then after a penalty is awarded, they set their backs free, Cooney keeps the tempo high and Burns and Stockdale time their passes well before Robert Baloucoune finishes. After a review, Ulster have a try ruled out but go to the corner with their penalty. 

14 minutes 

Yellow card to Leicester as Tom Youngs, their captain, is sent to the bin after a sustained period of Ulster pressure.

15 minutes  Another penalty is awarded to Ulster as they camp on the Leicester line. Their carrying and ball retention has been excellent; Henderson impressing, so too Herring, Jordi Murphy and Stuart McCloskey. Leicester have already conceded five penalties. Ulster winning the collisions here.

16 minutes TRY ULSTER HENDERSON

16 minutes Herring takes a pick and go; the ball moves to Iain Henderson who stays on his feet, despite the best intentions of Leicester’s pack. The captain crosses and Cooney adds the conversion. Leicester 3-10 Ulster

19 minutes PENALTY LEICESTER (FORD)

Leicester 6-10 Ulster

Fine kick from George Ford who uses his experience to take the full 60 seconds allocated to use up time as captain Youngs spends his time in the bin.

21 minutes TRY ULSTER (BURNS)

More great play by Ulster; O’Sullivan makes a huge carry; McCloskey had impressed earlier in the move; Leicester simply cannot live with this power from Ulster, by the time the play goes from right to left, Burns has an overlap. Easy finish. 

Leicester 6-15 Ulster

22 minutes Leicester 6-17 Ulster (Cooney conversion)

Another superb kick from a difficult angle by John Cooney.

24 minutes Jordi Murphy claims the restart; Cooney boxkicks clear; Leicester regain possession; Ford thumps one high, Stockdale claims it. Ulster go through the phases again.

25 minutes So Tom Youngs is back on; in his absence the score went from 3-3 to 6-17.

27 minutes Ford kicks a Leicester penalty into the Ulster half; Youngs’ throw is cleanly taken; Leicester get their maul moving nicely, Ford gets his backline moving. However, Ulster’s defence is connected and strong. Knock-on leads to an Ulster scrum.

29 minutes Interesting stat about Ulster’s ruck speed being nearly two seconds quicker than Leicester’s in this game; as clear a reason as any to explain why they are 11 points ahead.

30 minutes Better from Leicester, though. Steward – who looks a gem of a player – sends in a great grubber kick; Stockdale gets caught in his end-goal area; scrum Leicester, five metres out.

33 minutes Penalty to Leicester after they demolish the Ulster scrum. Ford kicks crossfield but Stockdale makes a great carry under pressure from Nadolo. Leicester opt for another scrum.

34 minutes Ulster win a scrum penalty; Ulster celebrate as if it is announced that the pubs have been allowed open again.

34 minutes Jasper Wiese is given a verbal warning from ref Pascal Gauzère after his fairly pathetic attempt to slap Rea. 

36 minutes Jordi Murphy knocks on after Alan O’Connor had claimed the line-out. Game is a bit scrappy at the moment.

38 minutes Ulster win a penalty after Leicester go off their feet; but the key to that decision is Ulster’s linespeed. Their defensive pressure has been incredible in this first half; McCloskey excelling in that department. Matty Rea has gone off for a HIA; Sean Reidy is on. Burns fails to find touch. Remember him doing that before?

39 minutes Leicester find a good touch; Ulster scrambled well to prevent Tigers exploiting an overlap. 

HALF-TIME: LEICESTER 6-17 ULSTER

A fine half from Ulster; the first 20 minutes seeing them recycle possession smartly and carry effectively. Their unsung heroes, Eric O’Sullivan, Alan O’Connor and James Hume who have stood up this evening while their main men, Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale, have really brought their A-Game.

Yet for all their early dominance, they have plenty to fix at half-time. Tigers’ scrum and maul looks strong; their kicking game is decent, their reaction to that early bombardment has impressed. While an 11-point lead is deserved, this game is far from over. 

Second half underway. 

Wooahhh!!!!! Tom Youngs off; Dan Cole off. 

That’s a statement from Steve Borthwick. Matty Rea passed his HIA and is back on the field; Tigers on the charge.

43 minutes Nadolo and Wiese carrying well so far in this half for Leicester. Hume tackling well for Ulster. 

Oh. Clash between Nadolo and Cooney as they go for the ball; Cooney is hurt.

TMO reviewing that collision between Nadolo and Cooney. 

Alby Mathewson is ready to come on for Ulster. TMO does not see anything untoward in Nadolo’s clash with Cooney, ruling it an accident. Cooney, thankfully, is back on his feet. 

44 minutes TRY LEICESTER (Wiese)

Leicester go from wing to wing; Steward is stopped short but when the play moves left, Porter does well to gather an awkward pass; the play then moves back infield and Wiese gets over. Ford converts.

Leicester 13-17 Ulster

48 minutes The momentum is with Leicester now; Ford kicks downfield, and while Baloucoune counters well, Stockdale then kicks out on the full.

Leicester win the line-out and go through the phases. They get a penalty as Ulster go offside. Ford will kick for the posts. That four point lead looks set to be cut to one.

49 minutes PENALTY LEICESTER (Ford)

Leicester 16-17 Ulster

Straightforward kick for Ford.

51 minutes great footwork from Stockdale as Ulster seek to regain some control in this game. They have played really poorly in this second half so far. If you were to choose a winner at this stage, it would be Leicester.

52 minutes Penalty to Leicester after Baloucoune spills a high ball and then panics. Ford kicks to the corner.

53 MINUTES TRY LEICESTER (GENGE)

54 minutes – Leicester 23-17 Ulster

Genge scores in the left corner after Steward goes close on the opposing wing; Ford playing really well now. Ford adds a difficult conversion. Ulster are in big trouble here.

56 minutes Will Addison is on the field; Stockdale moving to the wing, Baloucoune going off. Ulster have failed to dictate the terms of this second half. Leicester have just won yet another penalty; Henderson penalised for coming in at the side.

59 minutes DROP GOAL (FORD) Leicester 26-17 Ulster

That all came from Henderson’s needless decision to give away a penalty. Leicester have taken 10 points from two really soft penalties that Ulster have conceded on half-way in this second half. They have now given up 20 unanswered points in this second half.

61 minutes Disaster for Ulster. Having finally played some rugby in this second half, Reidy makes a fine break – Addison had earlier made some decent ground. Somehow Ulster lose the turnover, just five metres from the Leicester line.

Ulster desperately need to get the next score. That moment feels like a turning point. 

61 minutes TMO examines whether Nadolo committed a foul off the ball. The answer, after a prolonged wait, was no. 

Ben Youngs has made a massive difference in this second half since his introduction.

63 minutes Nice little break from Addison. He has looked sharp since coming on. Ulster have finally found some rhythm in this second-half. They have 17 minutes to claw back a nine point deficit.

65 minutes – Treadwell gathers the lineout, McCloskey carries  well, the momentum is lost when Addison spills the ball but as it goes backwards, the play continues. Murphy, McCloskey again, Hume and Henderson try to make progress. But Leicester hold firm. 

Jordi Murphy makes some yards; then Alby Mathewson box-kicks, and Leicester have a line-out.

67 minutes Billy Burns is making way for Michael Lowry. Squeaky bum time for Ulster now. 

67 minutes TRY ULSTER (TIMONEY)

Lowry makes an immediate impact; seeking to gather a high ball, he is caught off the ball. Ulster have a penalty and get decent territory.

From the lineout, Timoney gathers McCloskey’s subtle pass and charges clear to the line.

Leicester 26-22 Ulster

CONVERSION (LOWRY) Leicester 26-24 Ulster

Fine kick from Lowry, so 11 minutes remain; two points between them. Ulster are back in it.

71 minutes Youngs kicks over the top to find a decent touch inside the Ulster 22. Henderson is unchallenged as he wins the line-out. Mathewson’s kick is good; Lowry gathers, kick tennis ensues, then Addison runs into midfield.

A good carry from McCloskey gives Mathewson time to kick – which he does badly; Addison then spills the return kick and after carrying into his 22, he kicks straight out, Leicester, accordingly, have a line out in the Ulster 22.

74 minutes TRY LEICESTER (Porter)

Sustained Leicester pressure leads to 12 phases of possession and then Ford sends a superb pass wide and Porter finishes it off. Seven points between the sides now.

76 minutes This is a key conversion. The lead is now nine. There are four and a half minutes left. Ford does it again. He has been brilliant in this game.

Leicester 33-24 Ulster

78 minutes Good break from Lowry, a better one from Stockdale – his chip and chase speciality – and after Hume and O’Toole make some ground, Addison takes up the mantle.

Lowry has another go, then Hume and the ball is ripped and Ben Youngs clears. The game is as good as gone.

79 minutes Knock on from Ulster. Game is effectively over now. George Ford has been named man of the match. 

FULL-TIME: Leicester 33-24 Ulster

A deeply frustrating performance from Ulster in that second half. Needless errors from Robert Baloucoune, Iain Henderson and Will Addison allowed Leicester to set up territory in Ulster’s 22. 

Once in the red zone, they took advantage, getting 17 points from those three unforced Ulster errors. To think Ulster were 17-6 ahead at half-time. They lost the second-half 27-7 and are beginning to be one of those teams who are competitive but who ultimately are not good enough to seal the deal in big, big games.

Of all their defeats this season, this is their most disappointing. George Ford, Ben Youngs and Ellis Genge excelled for Leicester. Class told.

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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