It was a repeat of last week as Ulster took on Glasgow at Scotstoun, but it was so very different.
Ulster had a great start with a penalty almost straight after Jonny Gray’s fumble of the kick-off. Absent last week, Pienaar took the three points with no nasty wind to contend with. “Not rolling away” was the story up the other end with George Clancy vigilant at the breakdown and Russell given the chance to calmly equalise.
Breakdown rules established, both sides probed low-level kicks behind each other’s defensive lines, looking for chinks in the armour. Pienaar and Jackson for Ulster were the more effective, but Stuart Hogg stepped up to the plate with his usual confidence and perhaps unusually slotted the penalty beautifully.
Ulster were playing a very canny tactical game and were far from the semi-shambles of last week. They were miserly in defence, putting on huge pressure at the breakdown and kicking for territory very well. They were rewarded with a worryingly simple 2 on 1 that Niko blew to give Chris Henry an easy run in.
Last week Ulster suffered the early injuries but in the first 20 minutes Glasgow lost Fraser Brown and captain Al Kellock to head knocks from which they would not return.
While Ulster were ticking over nicely, even Glasgow’s oft reliable scrum was creaking as Ryan Grant twice fell foul of Clancy.
There was a brief period of excitement for Glasgow with some fiery discussions and Niko making the most of a fluffed high cross kick that he was never really going to get but he earned the penalty. Karma possibly ensured that the lineout was blown and Ulster were able to clear.
Glasgow were playing poorly, Ulster were playing clinically and well. Last week Glasgow had turned it around after half time but this time Ulster had the wind, and a far more capable set of players on the pitch.
Half-time: Glasgow 6-8 Ulster
Ulster were looking for more of the same in the second half, while Glasgow were looking to change just about everything, but the loss of bright spark Chris Fusaro and Stuart Hogg hobbling about were probably not what Gregor Townsend had in mind. Niko had a half chance for an intercept as Ulster broke out of their own half, but otherwise it was business as usual for Ulster who were running with confidence, even if they didn’t often get within scoring distance. Craig Gilroy was keeping Glasgow’s defence honest to the point of transparency and Ulster were keeping the ball where Glasgow fumbled it.
The one glimmer of hope for Glasgow was that Ulster suddenly made a few errors with the kicks that had been largely impeccable up to then. But come the 50 minute mark when Stuart Hogg had sparked a comeback last week, Glasgow were still nowhere. The 2 points might as well have been 20, and even that didn’t last as the scrum – replacement front row and all – collapsed, to give Pienaar the first points of the half.
There was more footage for the TMO to watch as the officials deliberated over Niko (again) making a meal of being obstructed by Craig Gilroy. He wasn’t, but the attack that had come from a fizzing Pete Horne pass led to a 5 metre scrum that they turned into a 5m lineout, perhaps fearing a change of mind from Clancy. Not for the first time they blew the lineout, but strong running from replacements Nakarawa and Ryan Wilson earned a much more kickable penalty for Finn Russell to cut Ulster’s lead back to 2.
Pienaar sneaked one over from about where Hogg had his in the first half at long range and Ulster were back in charge at 9-14 with 13 minutes left to play.
With quite simply everything they had built towards to lose, Glasgow threw everything into one last push for territory led by Nakarawa (who finally restrained his tendency to over-offload) and Gray. But they just couldn’t find a break. Ulster, meanwhile, could bring on fresh legs at their own pace.
The turning point will have been controversial over in Belfast, as Niko was taken round the neck off the ball by prop Ricky Lutton. It was most likely a penalty, but Niko milked it for all he was worth which drew the attention of the crowd, and the TMO drew it to Clancy’s attention. With an Irish team and Irish officials they had to be seen to be scrupulously fair. Glasgow had the ball back when Ulster had least wanted to surrender it. Right result, wrong way to go about it.
Seymour had been great while he was on, but a couple of knocks meant that DTH Van Der Merwe got a chance to bid farewell to the Scotstoun crowd that holds him dear. Roared on as they attacked from the penalty, Glasgow battered towards the line once again and an even better pass – this time from Russell – scythed wide with pinpoint accuracy for DTH to run on to and cross for the vital try. Having passed it out so wide, Russell was forced to kick from the touchline but he showed immense cool to bisect the uprights.
Last week Glasgow were poor for 50 before they turned it on, and tonight they were poor for 74 but once they did take the lead the momentum swung inexorably to the home side, and the crowd who had almost – but not quite, not quite – resigned themselves to despair, suddenly found belief swelling. After all, they only needed to retain possession for 3 minutes to crush Ulster’s dreams.
Russell was suddenly timing his kicks, and the crowd roared every tackle, every yard gained. When Clancy blew for another long range penalty, all Hogg had to do was kick it dead but he nobly went for the points giving Ulster one last chance to run back for a drop goal or a penalty.
They were weary and wobbling, but Glasgow held firm. And Scotstoun went wild.
SRBlog Man of the Match – He deserved it last week for a big contribution, and he deserved it this week for a small pass and a little kick. But they got Glasgow into the final. Congratulations, Finn Russell and the Glasgow Warriors.