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Heartbreak for Ulster amid enthralling contest as Toulouse set up Munster showdown


Ulster 23 (49)
Toulouse 30 (50)

Adam McKendry reports from Kingspan Stadium

IF THERE WAS ever an argument that two-legged ties should be the norm in European rugby, then this would be put forward as Exhibit A. Two sides who left everything on the pitch in search of a quarter-final place in an enthralling 160-minute clash from start to finish.

Unfortunately for Ulster, that is no consolation for the fact that their European dream is over.

As has been the case so many times, it was Antoine Dupont who proved the game-winner for defending European champions Toulouse at Kingspan Stadium, the scrum-half going over with five minutes remaining for the killer blow in a 30-23 win that handed them a 50-49 victory over 14-man Ulster.

Dan McFarland’s side had Juan Cruz Mallia’s red card to thank for their six-point lead heading into Saturday’s second leg and ultimately it was Tom O’Toole’s shoulder to the head of Anthony Jelonch that left them short a man in the dying stages when they needed one more defensive set to get over the line.

It looked like a brace from Ethan McIlroy and 13 points from the boot of John Cooney was enough, with Toulouse responding through tries from Thomas Ramos — who was steady with the boot as well — and Romain Ntamack, and it seemed like it would be a party atmosphere at full-time in front of a sell-out crowd in Belfast.

But when it’s the European Cup and the opposition are Toulouse, you’re never safe to celebrate. With five minutes left, Dupont ducked over, Ramos converted for the seven-point win Ugo Mola’s side required to set up a last-eight tie against Munster, and Ulster were left devastated.

A last-16 tie for the ages, one we may never see repeated if the aggregate system is done away with next season. But scant consolation for a devastated Ulster side.

Indeed, if their start in the Stadium de Toulouse had been poor then Ulster’s start in Belfast wasn’t much better as Ramos kicked Toulouse into the lead with a penalty almost straight off the kick-off, and then Robert Baloucoune saw yellow for taking Jelonch out in the air straight off the restart.

But just four minutes later their numerical disadvantage was negated when Dimitri Delibes joined Baloucoune in the sin-bin for a tip tackle, and shortly after that, the hosts struck for the first try of the game.

It was a fine kick into the corner from Mike Lowry that put Toulouse under pressure and saw Dupont knock-on under pressure, and when the ball was moved wide for James Hume, the centre managed to get his hands free in contact to get the ball to McIlroy and the winger went through the struggling Matthis Lebel and over for the score.

Cooney converted, and he and Ramos then traded penalties before the French side struck through one of their scintillating tries out of nothing.

It came off a Dupont fumble backwards but just when it looked like there was nothing on, Ntamack dipped the shoulder and ghosted through the gap in the defensive line and into clean air, and he had Dupont on his shoulder to set Ramos under the posts for an exceptional score.

If that was Toulouse at their best, then Ntamack’s try was probably best described as opportunistic. Seizing on a Cooney pass to Stuart McCloskey just outside his own 22, the French fly-half held on to complete the interception and there was nobody on the Ulster team able to get back in time to stop him crossing.

With the crowd silenced, if there was a moment Toulouse were going to run away with the tie then it was now. But, instead, Ulster would have the advantage at the break and it was McIlroy again who went over, and this one was as good a finish as you could hope for.

With penalty advantage coming from a typically dominant Ulster maul, fly-half Billy Burns’ crossfield kick was overcooked slightly, but the winger did superbly to corral it above his head and bring it under control before dancing down the touchline and supplying the finish to have them three points ahead at the interval.

Compared to the first half, the second took a while to spring into action, although it would be Ulster first on the board as Cooney levelled the scores on the night and restored their six-point lead in the tie with a 52nd-minute penalty.

Ramos put over his third penalty of the night to set up the grandstand finish, although it came in between two TMO referrals for foul play from Ulster, one which went unpunished and one which did.

There was some incredulity when Lowry was not sanctioned even with a penalty for taking out Ramos in the air, not too dissimilar to the Mallia incident a week ago, but there were no arguments when O’Toole’s shoulder connected with Jelonch’s face and he was given an early bath with 15 minutes remaining, and he could have been joined by Rob Herring, who appeared to do likewise with the follow-up tackle but went unpunished.

That set up a dramatic finish and, although Ulster held out manfully for 10 of those 15 minutes, the dam was cracking with every brutal Toulouse carry and eventually it burst.

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Ntamack went quickly off a clearing kick from Cooney, some quick hands sent Jelonch just shy of the line and as the Ulster defence — down another couple of players due to injury — struggled to scramble back into position, Dupont spotted the gap and wriggled his way over to send the away fans wild.

Ramos still had to add the conversion but, from right under the posts, it was never in doubt. Toulouse march on to a meeting with Munster early next month in the quarter-finals, Ulster left to rue what might have been.

The scorers

For Ulster
Tries: McIlroy (2)
Cons: Cooney (2)
Pens: Cooney (3)

For Toulouse
Tries: Ramos, Ntamack, Dupont
Cons: Ramos (3)
Pens: Ramos (3)

ULSTER
(15-9) Mike Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns (Rob Lyttle 58), John Cooney; (1-8) Andrew Warwick (Eric O’Sullivan 63), Rob Herring, Marty Moore (Tom O’Toole 63); Alan O’Connor (Kieran Treadwell 53), Iain Henderson; Marcus Rea (Jordi Murphy 54), Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.
Subs not used: Brad Roberts, Nathan Doak, Luke Marshall.
Yellow card: Robert Baloucoune (3′)
Red card: Tom O’Toole (65′)

TOULOUSE
(15-9) Thomas Ramos; Dimitri Delibes, Tim Nanai-Williams (Baptiste Germain 73), Pita Ahki, Matthis Lebel (Lucas Tauzin 12); Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; (1-8) Rodrigue Neti (David Ainu’u 63), Peato Mauvaka, Charlie Faumuina (Dorian Aldegheri 51); Rory Arnold (Antoine Miquel 64), Richie Arnold (Emmanuel Meafou 54); Rynhardt Elstadt, Anthony Jelonch, Selevasio Tolofua (Thibaud Flament 54).
Sub not used: Guillaume Cramont.
Yellow card: Dimitri Delibes (6′)

Referee: Matthew Carley (England)





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