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Cooney the hero again as Ulster snatch thrilling late victory

Ireland scrum-half kicks last-gasp penalty to seal victory for Dan McFarland’s side over Edinburgh.

Ulster 30

Edinburgh 29

Ryan Bailey reports from Kingspan Stadium 

IT’S STILL TOO early for talk of a renewal around these parts, but certainly there is a lot to shout about for Ulster fans after two thrilling victories to start the season, as John Cooney again proved to be the hero to snatch the points at the end of an epic contest. 

John Cooney celebrates at the final whistle after kicking the winning penalty Cooney celebrates his match-winning kick. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The scrum-half, who signed a new long-term contract with the province during the week, further underlined his worth with another match-winning performance, as he held his nerve to seal a second consecutive one-point win with the last kick of a remarkable game.

It was an act of redemption of sorts from Cooney having conceded a penalty at the other end moments earlier to allow Simon Hickey restore Edinburgh’s lead with just two minutes left.

But Ulster weren’t to be denied and completed a stunning comeback with the clock in the red, Cooney striking his 40-metre penalty attempt as sweet as you like after Edinburgh were penalised trying to steal the ball on the ground.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Scottish outfit after they had stormed into a 17-point lead not long into the second period, but Ulster rebounded impressively as tries from the excellent Will Addison, Cooney and Craig Gilroy tipped the balance in the home side’s favour.

Cooney will grab the headlines and Gilroy was named man-of-the-match for a lively display and that brilliant virtuoso score, but there were big contributions from fullback Addison, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey and debutant Jordi Murphy to name just a few standout performers in white. 

It was the ultimate game of two halves and certainly there are many areas Ulster will need to work on moving forward, but the bottom line is they head to South Africa with an 100% record under Dan McFarland, and the reaction — from both the players and fans — at full-time spoke volumes. 

Ulster certainly made hard work of the win and a combination of Edinburgh’s strong and cohesive defence and accurate attacking game saw the visitors take control of the encounter in the first period.  

Cooney required treatment inside the opening exchanges and although he returned for a defensive lineout, Ross Kane was penalised at the set-piece, allowing Hickey open the scoring from the tee.

The Edinburgh out-half was given the chance to double his side’s lead shortly after, as Iain Henderson was pinged for being off his feet at the breakdown, and Hickey made no mistake, striking it straight and true for a 6-0 lead.

Richard Cockerill’s side have developed a real clinical attacking edge under the Englishman, reaching the play-offs last term, and stunned Kingspan Stadium into silence with a brilliant team try.

All coming from Cooney’s poor box-kick, the Scots moved it from left to right, catching Ulster narrow, and when McCloskey rushed up and failed to complete the intercept, the home side were exposed.

Tom Brown celebrates scoring a try with teammates Edinburgh celebrate Brown's try. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Mark Bennett showed innate power and strong hand-off technique to brush would-be tackles from Henry Speight and Addison aside, surging into the 22, before quick ball allowed Edinburgh to strike.

Jamie Ritchie carried, offloading sharply for the supporting Stuart McInally on his left shoulder, and with Ulster scrambling and Stuart Berry’s arm out-stretched, Henry Pyrgos threw a delightful floating pass up-and-over Gilroy for Tom Brown to finish.

It would be Bennett’s last involvement as his evening was ended prematurely shortly after, the Edinburgh centre stretchered off in some discomfort after his side had been penalised for hands in the ruck.

On the restart, Cooney got Ulster up and running, dissecting the sticks from just outside the 22, but almost immediately the hosts were back underneath their own posts after Nick Timoney held on having gathered the kick-off. 

With Edinburgh firm in defence, rushing up in aggressive fashion to force Ulster into mistakes, the home side were forced to change tact and show more ingenuity in possession.

Addison’s well-judged kick in-behind put the Edinburgh lineout under-pressure and following brawny carries from Murphy, Marcell Coetzee and Cave, the visitors infringed on the ground again, with Cooney duly converting. 

Having looked toothless in attack by playing runners off Cooney, and using McCloskey as a battering ram in midfield, Ulster instantly generated quicker ball and momentum when returning to basics, after Billy Burns’ booming penalty from halfway brought them within striking distance.

From the lineout, Burns linked with Cave and the centre timed his pass out the back door for Gilroy perfectly, allowing the winger to pick a glorious line and power towards the whitewash. 

But the frustration continued, as Edinburgh scrambled impressively and even when Cooney fed Murphy to crash his way through with the aid of Speight, the navy blue shirts got back in numbers to force the Ireland flanker into touch before he could ground for a debut try. 

Stuart McCloskey and Dougie Fife McCloskey made some big carries in midfield. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Ulster had identified the breakdown as the problem area and although they improved in that facet with Murphy’s influence growing, they were ruthlessly torn apart six minutes into the second period having knocked on the door themselves. 

Murphy was again heavily involved, crashing onto a Cooney pop-pass, but Edinburgh’s scramble defence came up trumps, and once they had forced the turnover took full advantage of the overlap out wide, surging into a 23-6 lead. 

It was a slick counter-attack try from Cockerill’s side, as Blair Kinghorn showed all of his pace to scythe through and then feed replacement James Johnstone with a clever offload having been cut down by the retreating Gilroy. 

McFarland instantly looked to his bench for impact, replacing his two props and introducing Sean Reidy for the fit-again Coetzee, and the province eventually found that creative spark to unlock Edinburgh’s stoic resistance.

Cooney made the initial line-break and their persistence eventually paid off, as Ulster generated quick ball, maintained their intensity and unlocked the door out wide through Addison for a TMO-confirmed try after suspicions of blocking by Cave.

Cooney was accurate off the tee to cut the deficit further and although Ulster coughed up another three points at the other end when Henderson didn’t release under his own posts, all the momentum was with the home side.

Quick ball off the top of the lineout via O’Connor gave Ulster the attacking platform, with McCloskey typically abrasive in a hefty midfield collision, and the Cooney-Cave-Addison combination worked to devastating effect on the left.

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The fullback was the creator on this occasion, beautifully stepping off his left and popping inside for the excellent Cooney to run it home under the posts, as Ulster moved within a converted score of the lead.

And they hit the front shortly after, Gilroy the man to dot down, but it was Rob Herring’s pivotal turnover at the other end which shut the door on Edinburgh when they threatened to pull clear again.

O’Connor and Henderson had also done trojan work at the breakdown to win the ball back for Ulster and when Pyrgos looked to assert further pressure with a box-kick, the chase was poor from an Edinburgh perspective and Speight spotted the space out wide.

Craig Gilroy on his way to scoring a try Gilroy scored Ulster's third try. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It came as no surprise to see Cooney influential again, throwing the pass off his right to send Gilroy galloping away, and the winger did the rest as he stepped inside Kinghorn and finished after it had opened up beautifully for him. 

With their tails up, Ulster moved to close the game out but looked to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when Cooney — of all players — conceded the penalty at scrum-time, and Hickey held his nerve with two minutes remaining. 

But the last word and act belonged to the man of the moment as, for the second week running, Cooney stepped up and delivered for Ulster when it mattered most, striking his third penalty attempt between the posts to send Ravenhill into raptures. 

O’Connor’s intervention — to gather the restart — was absolutely crucial and Ulster showed composure in the dying embers to patiently retain possession, forcing Edinburgh to infringe and Cooney did the rest. 

Ulster scorers:
Tries: Will Addison, John Cooney, Craig Gilroy    
Conversions: John Cooney [3 from 3]
Penalties: John Cooney [3 from 3]
Edinburgh scorers:
Tries: Tom Brown, James Johnstone 
Conversions: Simon Hickey [2 from 2]
Penalties: Simon Hickey [4 from 4].

ULSTER: 15. Will Addison, 14. Craig Gilroy, 13. Darren Cave, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Henry Speight, 10. Billy Burns, 9. John Cooney; 1. Andrew Warwick (Eric O’Sullivan 50′), 2. Rob Herring (captain), 3. Ross Kane (Wiehahn Herbst), 4. Kieran Treadwell (Alan O’Connor 60′), 5. Iain Henderson, 6. Marcell Coetzee (Sean Reidy 50′), 7. Jordi Murphy, 8. Nick Timoney.

Replacements not used: 16. Adam McBurney, 21. Dave Shanahan, 22. Angus Curtis, 23. Angus Kernohan.

EDINBURGH: 15. Blair Kinghorn, 14. Dougie Fife, 13. Mark Bennett (James Johnstone 20′), 12. Matt Scott, 11. Tom Brown, 10. Simon Hickey, 9. Henry Pyrgos (Sean Kennedy 75′); 1. Pierre Schoeman (Allan Dell 64′), 2. Stuart McInally (captain) (Ross Ford 69′), 3. WP Nel (Murray McCallum 56′), 4. Ben Toolis (Fraser McKenzie 56′), 5. Grant Gilchrist, 6. Luke Hamilton, 7. Jamie Ritchie, 8. Bill Mata (Luke Crosbie 40′).

Replacements not used: 22. Jaco van der Walt.

Referee: Stuart Berry [SARU].

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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