Updated: Saturday, 18 Jan 2014 21:43 | Comments
South African Ruan Pienaar was the hero as Ulster clinched a Heineken Cup quarter-final home tie with a brilliant 22-19 victory at Leicester.
The scrum-half scored all Ulster’s points in an epic battle at Welford Road to ensure his side finished top of Pool Five with six wins from six matches.
Pienaar scored a try, kicked the conversion and landed five penalties, including two monsters from inside his own half, in the final pool match.
The Tigers, who will have to travel in the quarter-finals after their first home defeat in the competition since 2006-07, scored a try through winger Niall Morris and fly-half Toby Flood converted and also slotted four penalties.
Pool leaders Ulster started the game two points ahead of Leicester and while both teams had already qualified the prize for the winners was a crucial home tie.
Ulster made two changes from the side that beat Montpellier, bringing in prop Callum Black and back rower Roger Wilson, while Leicester recalled centres Anthony Allen and Matt Smith and locks Ed Slater and Graham Kitchener.
Ulster had won all five of their pool matches while Leicester had lost one – at Ulster – and the previous five meetings between the sides had gone the way of the home side.
The Tigers, backed by a vociferous 24,000 sell-out crowd, made a barnstorming start to a ferocious contest and led 6-0 after 11 minutes but Ulster pegged them back and the sides turned round level at 9-9 at half-time.
Flood kicked three penalties but, crucially, missed the easiest of the lot when he hooked the ball wide of the left post in the 35th minute.
Pienaar kept his side in the game with three penalties of his own, the third a monster from two metres inside his own half, before fly-half Paddy Jackson was just wide with a snap drop-goal attempt in the 40th minute.
Leicester just about edged the half but chances were few and far between and their best opportunity came in the 20th minute when Kitchener burst free from a ruck 40 metres out and looked certain to score – until full-back Jared Payne collared him just short of the line.
Ulster’s best chance came two minutes before the interval when they surged down the right after robbing Tigers scrum-half Ben Youngs.
Winger Andrew Trimble latched onto the kick ahead and fed Payne but Trimble was adjudged to have put a foot in touch.
Flood kicked penalties in the 4th, 11th and 23rd minutes, the first and last coming after Ulster were penalised at scrums where the Tigers had a definite edge.
Pienaar replied with penalties in the 16th, 27th and 31st minutes and with Leicester losing number eight Jordan Crane and full-back Mathew Tait to injury, Ulster finished the half the stronger. The pair were replaced by Steve Mafi and Scott Hamilton.
Flood restored Leicester’s lead seven minutes after the interval when he landed a 32-metre penalty after Ulster had again offended at a scrum.
And 12-9 became 19-9 two minutes later when Morris scored the first try of the match, brilliantly converted from the right touchline by Flood.
It came after great work by hooker Tom Youngs and winger Vereniki Goneva in the loose. Flood chipped down the right and Morris fended off a tackle to score in the corner, the try being awarded by the TV official.
Minutes later it was all hands to the pump for Leicester, who failed to deal with a high ball and were pinned on their own line, with Pienaar coming close to scoring before the Tigers pinched the ball and half cleared their lines.
Ulster, however, kept the pressure on and won a penalty which Pienaar kicked in the 57th minute to make it 19-12.
And they were level a minute later after another high ball. Although Leicester dealt with this one Flood’s clearance was charged down by Pienaar who followed up for an easy try before converting from the right touchline.
Pienaar then kicked another monster penalty, from a metre inside his own half, in the 69th minute to put Ulster ahead for the first time and Ulster withstood a Tigers onslaught before finishing strongly.