Sean Farrell reports from the Ricoh Arena
A WEEK THAT began full of hope that their season was in the process of being turned around, ended deep in the doldrums for Ulster.
Les Kiss’ side came to Coventry as leaders of pool 1 with destiny firmly in their own hands, but as snow hit the midlands, Ulster’s hopes proved brittle.
Wasps hit their guests for four tries and the bonus point they needed to overtake them to, coupled with La Rochelle’s win over Harlequins, push Ulster down to third – far from the quarter-final shake-up that Leinster, Munster and, in the Challenge Cup, Connacht can build their spring around.
While Wasps dazzled at times with their ability to continue playing an expansive game in conditions that were anything but amenable, Ulster’s only score came from a freakish interception picked off by Louis Ludik and scored by Sean Reidy.
Even though the odds were stacked against them to qualify, a Wasps side (fully-loaded ap on home turf were never going to offer the points to their pool rivals and they proved their intent inside 11 minutes when they pressured Ulster’s line with the Joe Launchbury-led maul.
On the first attempt, Alan O’Connor was penalised for entering the side of the maul. Openside Guy Thompson was the beneficiary, touching the resulting rumble down to give Ulster a 7 – 0 deficit to chase.
If that wasn’t enough of a blow to morale on top of a freezing muddy surface, Jacob Stockdale took a knock and hobbled off with 17 minutes on the clock.
The early profitable mauls aside, Wasps showed commendable commitment to expansive running rugby even though Ulster were the first to gain from the ethos.
Ludik lurked in just the right place to take a wild Christian Wade pass. The South African turned to run at the Wasps line and found support in Darren Cave who took another tackler out as he invited Sean Reidy to power and slide towards the line.
All square and Ulster’s hopes were glimmering again, but the absence of any real territory made building on their only score of the half impossible.
Rather than grow numb, Wasps seemed to warm to the task the longer they were on the field. Their flowing wide-wide passing moves began to click and avoid slippages. The hosts hit their peak at the half hour, black jerseys skated forward with numbers to spare and Ulster had to backpedal deep into their 22.
As the scramble defence began to take a hold, Danny Cipriani changed the point of attack, beautifully chipping the ball into the left corner and hooker Tom Cruse gave chase, took flight and planted the pill down.
As Cipriani kicked his second conversion from the left, Ludik became Ulster’s second wing casualty, a head injury meaning Les Kiss had to slide Charles Piutau to the right wing with Johnny McPhillips coming on to run from fullback.
14 – 7 down at the interval and it soon got even worse for the visitors as Wasps grew bolder in their range of passing and their electric runners sniffed more and more space. Having thwarted a back-line attack Ulster were unable to cope with the efforts of Wasps pack and the advantage was duly driven home as Cipraini cut a pass back to his flyers and Le Roux romped to the line.
Though the drums would pound on to the end, the temperature keep dropping and Wasps continue attacking, the match and pool was over for Ulster when Jake Cooper-Wooley trundled over for Wasps’ fourth try.
An intensely disappointing end to the European campaign for Ulster and a sad end to the five-month stint of Christian Lealiffano too. The Australian playmaker seemed to finally succumb to the battering he has taken over the harsh winter and he gingerly departed holding the ribs which have taken a bruising.
He can look forward to sun and a Super Rugby season ahead, Ulster must turn all attention on the Pro14.
Tries: G Thompson, T Cruse, W Le Roux, J Cooper-Wooley
Conversions: D Cipriani (3/4)
Tries: S Reidy
Conversions: C Lealiifano (1/1)
Wasps: Willie Le Roux, Christian Wade, Juan De Jongh, Kyle Eastmond (Brendan Macken ’66), Marcus Watson (Rob MIller ’56), Danny Cipriani, Dan Robson: Simon McIntyre (Ben Harris ’61), Tom Cruse (Ashley Johnson ’61), Jake Cooper-Woolley (Marty Moore’ 61), . Joe Launchbury, James Gaskell (Kearnan Myall ’54), Jack Willis (Thomas Young ’54) Guy Thompson, Nizaam Carr
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Louis Ludik (Johnny McPhillips ’31), Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale (Rob Lyttle ’17), Christian Lealiifano (Dave Shanahan ”72) , John Cooney: Callum Black (Andrew Warwick ’54), Rory Best (Rob Herring ’57), Rodney Ah You,(Wiehahn Herbst ’50), Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell (Matty Rea ’57), Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney (Chris Henry ’66)