Tonight at Kingspan Stadium Ulster got the result they needed with a converted-try victory over Edinburgh, but will be concerned by four injuries picked up only a week before their must-win European Rugby Champions Cup clash with Toulouse.
Iain Henderson, Darren Cave, Peter Nelson and Dan Tuohy all either limped off the Kingspan turf or were removed by stretcher, with Henderson and Nelson’s injuries in particular looking likely to cause long-term layoffs.
However the win sees Ulster move up to fifth in the Guinness PRO12 standings, level on points with fourth-placed Leinster and six points off the lead with nine games played.
Six changes from the XV defeated at the RDS saw Rob Herring captain the side from hooker in place of Rory Best, rested through the IRFU Player Management Scheme. Ricky Lutton, Franco van der Merwe and Chris Henry all came into the pack at prop, second row and flanker respectively, while loosehead Kyle McCall, lock Tuohy, and back rowers Henderson and Nick Williams retained their starting berths.
Among the backs, Luke Marshall made a welcome return from injury at centre, while Rory Scholes replaced Craig Gilroy on the wing. Elsewhere, Nelson continued at full-back, with Andrew Trimble at 14, Cave partnering Marshall in the midfield, Paddy Jackson at out-half and Ruan Pienaar scrum-half.
Ulster enjoyed good early pressure with a steal at the first Edinburgh scrum and Williams’ charge-down of Phil Burleigh’s clearance five metres from the try-line and, despite a protracted pause for treatment to an ominous-looking injury to Henderson, the ensuing five-metre lineout saw Henry peel off the back of the maul only for visiting skipper Mike Coman to illegally prevent the score from an offside position, securing the penalty try.
Jackson converted and, although Cave soon succumbed to a knock, with Louis Ludik joining Henderson’s replacement Clive Ross as an early entrant, Ulster ploughed on undeterred, notching their second score on 11 minutes. Ludik was heavily involved, picking up from Jackson and breaking the line to find Scholes, whose clever dummy made him the space before his pace took him to the line ahead of three Edinburgh chasers.
The second conversion dispatched, clumsy handling from the Scots gifted the ball to Tuohy twice in a matter of minutes, before another fine break led this time by Nelson from full-back got Ulster to within metres of try number three before a spill of their own.
Another serious-looking injury – this time to Nelson – brought Stuart McCloskey into the fray on the half-hour, and it wasn’t long before Scholes, the recipient of a heavy bang to the head in the tackle, joined his battered team-mates on the sidelines, temporarily replaced by Paul Marshall in cameo mode.
The mercurial scrum-half’s impact was instantaneous, as he tore up the wing with his first ball, putting Pienaar in try-scoring territory before an eventual knock-on – from Marshall himself – blighted the move.
Half-Time Score Ulster 14 Edinburgh 0
A smart backward flick of the ball from scrum-half Sean Kennedy set the wheels in motion for Edinburgh’s first points on 47 minutes, with Ulster-born John Andress carrying well and Number Eight Cornell Du Preez touching down in the corner.
Jack Cuthbert converted but Ulster wasted little time in pouring down the other end, both McCloskey and Ross instrumental in a right-wing raid which ended with the centre adjudged by the TMO to have been held up over the line.
Despite some complications at the five-metre scrum, and this time Ross being held up at the first attempt, Ulster recycled well through multiple phases and Jackson was unlucky that his darting diagonal run fell just short of taking him to the line.
With Tuohy hobbling off as Ulster’s fourth casualty on the hour, a once-more reshuffled Ulster struggled to impose their rhythm on the match for a good 10 minutes, but when they did, on 73 minutes, it was only TMO Alan Rogan and referee Ian Davies who denied Luke Marshall a try on his return to first team action, deciding after much deliberation that Henry had been guilty of some illegal holding in the build-up to the score.
Full-Time Score Ulster 14 Edinburgh 7