Baloucoune bags hat-trick as Ulster notch crucial win after Toulouse epic

Dan McFarland’s men beat the defending champions to bring a six-point advantage home to Belfast.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Toulouse 20

Ulster 26

ROBERT BALOUCOUNE’S HAT-trick on his return to the team means Ulster will, incredibly, take a six-point lead back to Kingspan Stadium for the second leg of their Heineken Champions Cup last-16 tie after a 26-20 win over 14-man Toulouse in France.

It was a tale of two wingers at the Stadium de Toulouse as, while Baloucoune was running in a treble, Juan Cruz Mallia left his side facing an uphill battle when he was sent-off in the 11th-minute for upending opposite number Ben Moxham as he leapt to claim a high ball.

The defending champions made a good fist of it in the first half, and they deserved their six-point lead at the interval, but after the break Ulster finally made their numerical advantage pay as Baloucoune rounded off his hat-trick and replacement prop Andrew Warwick also crossed.

With their lead standing at six points returning to Belfast for next Saturday’s second-leg, Ulster could one foot in the quarter-finals, but they will know they still have to get the job done on home soil and, given some of the calls that went against them, Toulouse will be fired up.

There were no complaints over Mallia’s red, but there was plenty of frustration over a disallowed try to Matthis Lebel early in the second half, and Ugo Mola cut an irate figure on the touchline when referee Wayne Barnes did not refer Baloucoune’s hat-trick score to the TMO for a potential offside.

And they gave themselves a crucial lifeline going into the second-leg when Romain Ntamack crossed with just seconds to go and they nearly stole the win when they went the length of the pitch with the clock in the red, only for replacement scrum-half Martin Page-Relo to knock-on.

An utterly enthralling game that left all 15 players on the pitch gasping for air at the full-time whistle and, even more excitingly, they do it all again in seven days’ time.

It had all looked rather concerning for Ulster just seven minutes in when the hosts got on the board as they flexed their forward muscles, Rory Arnold putting in a big carry to set up the platform for his second row partner Emmanuel Meafou to burst the tackles of Marcus Rea and Rob Herring to stretch over the line for the opening score.

ulster-huddle-during-the-game Ulster secured a crucial win. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

But then a moment of madness from Mallia cost him the rest of the game, the winger completely misjudging his contest for the ball and wiping out Moxham at the peak of his jump. The crowd didn’t like the call, but there were no complaints on the pitch.

With the extra man, Ulster struck immediately off the resulting penalty as Billy Burns kicked into the 22, and after some nice carries close to the line by Nick Timoney and Marty Moore to suck in the defence, one more from Duane Vermeulen set up the platform for James Hume to send Baloucoune over untouched in the corner.

The winger nearly added a world class solo effort shortly after when a pop pass out the back from Stuart McCloskey sent him searing through on halfway and up into the 22, but a desperate diving tackle from Thomas Ramos managed to halt him just when it looked like he might go all the way.

Instead it was Ramos himself who got the next score, sending over a penalty to put the hosts 10-7 ahead, and he would add another on the stroke of half-time after a scrum infringement from the visitors to have Toulouse six points to the good at the interval.

That was largely down to how Ulster were failing to hold onto the ball, a combination of their own poor execution in the red zone – such as Eric O’Sullivan’s missed pop pass to McCloskey – and their inability to service the breakdown efficiently, with Rynhardt Elstadt running rampant in the back row.

But what they failed to do in the first half, they achieved just five minutes into the second. Two fine carries from Marcus Rea and O’Sullivan punched the holes in the defence that the backs needed, and when James Hume put Stuart McCloskey through the defensive line, the centre had Baloucoune on his shoulder to take it the rest of the way.

The crowd were moved to jeers four minutes later when Lebel had a try ruled out, the winger finishing off a fine move that started inside their own 22, only for the TMO to point out that Antoine Dupont had knocked the ball on in the build-up, and that feeling of injustice was only heightened when Ulster finally used their numerical advantage to their favour.

zack-holmes-is-tackled-by-marty-moore It was a brilliant game in Toulouse. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

First came Warwick’s score, the prop the one to burrow over from close range after a maul was brought down just shy of the try line, and then Baloucoune completed his hat-trick in dramatic style when, with Toulouse seemingly poised to strike in the Ulster 22, he picked off a Dupont pass and ran it the length of the pitch for the third try.

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The noise level soared and Mola on the touchline remonstrated with flailing arms but, despite the crowd’s insistence, the try would not be overturned and Cooney chipped over the conversion to open up a 13-point gap.

But the drama was not over yet, and Toulouse deservedly picked up one more try when Ulster’s indiscipline let them back into the 22 and Ntamack skipped over after some nice hands from Richie Arnold, and they almost stole the win when they broke from inside their own 22 off the restart and got back into the red zone.

But a superb covering tackle from Nathan Doak saved the day, and when Page-Relo spilled the ball forward at the base of the ruck, there was a sigh of relief from everyone wearing white inside the stadium.

Not a bad time for Ulster to pick up only their second away knockout win the Heineken Champions Cup. The job is only half done, though.

The scorers:

For Toulouse
Tries: Meafou, Ntamack
Cons: Ramos (2)
Pens: Ramos (2)

For Ulster
Tries: Baloucoune (2), Warwick
Cons: Cooney (3)

TOULOUSE: (15-9) Thomas Ramos; Juan Cruz Mallia, Zack Holmes, Pita Ahki (Sofiane Guitoune 67 (Martin Page-Relo 75)), Matthis Lebel; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; (1-8) Rodrigue Neti (Cyril Baille 49), Peato Mauvaka, Dorian Aldegheri (Charlie Faumuina 49); Rory Arnold, Emmanuel Meafou (Richie Arnold 58); Rynhardt Elstadt (Anthony Jelonch 58), Thibaud Flament, Francois Cros (Alban Placines 64 (Guillaume Cramont 67)).
Red card: Juan Cruz Mallia (11′)

ULSTER: (15-9) Mike Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey (Luke Marshall 50), Ben Moxham (Rob Lyttle 11); Billy Burns, John Cooney (Nathan Doak 72); (1-8) Eric O’Sullivan (Andrew Warwick 56), Rob Herring (Bradley Roberts 80), Marty Moore (Tom O’Toole 50); Alan O’Connor (Kieran Treadwell 54), Iain Henderson; Marcus Rea (Jordi Murphy 54), Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.

Man of the Match: Robert Baloucoune (Ulster)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).

About the author:

Adam McKendry  / Reports from Le Stadium, Toulouse

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