The return of the luminescent Adam Hastings to the Glasgow Warriors’ line-up wasn’t quite enough as a tight encounter saw the away side clinch victory in a tightly contested battle which showed further shoots of recovery for Danny Wilson’s side.
Gray-Nakawara was a common combination during the Fijian’s first-spell at the club but it’s a different Gray this time, and one whose giant frame makes him an even greater threat than his wee brother at line-out time on both sides of the ball.
In the early stages the experienced duo gave Warriors good territory and an attacking platform, but a third arrow in quick succession from Jonny Matthews – starting for the first time in a Warriors’ shirt – went askew and Ulster won the penalty at the scrum to give Madigan an easy exit.
Ulster’s line-out as been a huge part of their artillery this season, but a Glasgow steal and counter forced Craig Gilroy into touching down in-goal with Rufus MacLean chasing down the kick-through.
Warriors low league standing helps to prove the old adage about stats not telling the full story as they’re on average one of the better teams in the lead, but it’s a failure to convert chances and then lose points at crucial times that sees them where they are in comparison.
A dropped take by Huw Jones from a poor Cooney kick led to an Ulster scrum, which led to a penalty for the visitor’s which the datf-coiffed Madigan sent to touch 10m from the Warriors’ line.
The soon to be departed Marcel Coetzee thought he’d wriggled his way over from the maul, but with no clear grounding referee Blain called it back for a 5m scrum from which Kebble was penalised.
Ulster again relied on their prolific short-range line-out, but through the crowd Big Bad Bob Harley to do what he does best: be the utter pain in the hole that has seen him rack up 242 appearances for Glasgow and win a penalty on opposition ball.
A disruption of an attacking Ulster line-out then led to a Warriors’ attack in an enthralling little passage of play.
Ulster had regathered the bobbling line-out only for the ball to be stripped by Ratu Tagive.
Jamie Dobie then skipped a tackle out left and turboed into the Ulster half. The attacking passage led to a penalty which Adam Hastings knocked over for a 3-0 lead with 36mins played.
As has been the Warriors’ way this season, they ended up conceding a try with the last play of the half, a touch of fortune but then excellence in execution putting Ulster into the lead.
A breathless passage of play saw a pair of turnovers which went to advantages until Stuart McCloskey managed to bounce off of Robbie Fergusson, popped the pill inside to Cooney who had the mini-pocket rocket Michael Lowry on his shoulder to gallop away under the sticks with the last play of the game.
Half-time: Glasgow Warriors 3 – 7 Ulster
Prior to Ulster’s try, the monstrous Marcel Coetzee had taken a knock which looked quite serious and so he was replaced at half-time, as was Glasgow’s Matthews by Grant Stewart but not for known injury reasons.
For a low-scoring game this was entertaining when scrums weren’t being reset.
The set-pieces, where we usually see one team dominate over the other, was a real slug-fest.
Dan McFarland had been credited with improving both Glasgow and Scotland’s line-out when that was his duty, and now as Ulster head coach he’s used that as a reliable focus of attack, but it’s not every week the Ulstermen will come up against a trio of operators as tall and canny as Richie Gray, Leone Nakarawa and Rob Harley.
Hastings reduced the deficit to a point, then Glasgow defended exceptionally for a lengthy period until Craig Gilroy knocked on as he went to dive over in the right-corner.
A passing train hooter which made such a difference to the last match played on this ground led to a very different result this time, as the blast signified an Ulster try was incoming.
Gilroy was not to be denied this time, after an initial squirming break by Madigan which took him past a tiring Nakarawa and an off-balance Grant Stewart to create space.
After an injury to Ryan Wilson saw new man James Scott come in to a giant Warriors back 5, Nick Timoney did score from an Ulster maul for the away side’s third try which put them into a 2-converted score lead.
A good chance to reduce the deficit was lost when Ian Madigan nicked the ball from Stewart’s grasp only 10m from the line,
Ulster scrum-half Alby Matthewson was yellowed for two penalties conceded within about 10secs, first for offside at a Glasgow scrum, then a deliberate knock-on, then Ulster were lucky not to go down to 13-men with another double infringement with Glasgow inches away.
With less than 5mins left, Aki Sieuli charged over and Ross Thompson converted to make it a 6-point deficit.
Glasgow retrieved the kick off and made their way into the Ulster half, however Jordi Murphy got over the ball from a Huw Jones’ carry to win the penalty which guided Ulster to safety.
SRBlog Player of the Match: he’s not been seen a lot since his return, but Richie Gray proved again that he’s international-class when he’s fit. We expect the set-piece nuisance due to his size but it’s his work around the park which puts him a level above the like of Toolis and Gilchrist when considering Scottish lock options.
Referee: Ben Blain (SRU)