Scotland international wingers Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour were again the try-scoring heroes for the Warriors on a glorious spring evening in Glasgow’s west end, but their rock solid defence which has worked so well for Gregor Townsend in recent weeks—and has given up just 17 tries in the league all season—again came to the fore with some timely interventions as Ulster’s forays in to the Warriors 22 were brutally snuffed out. Centre Mark Bennett—who was 90 per cent sure he hadn’t scored when the TMO gave the Warriors’ third try—was superb in leading the charge with several line breaks, but was equally impressive in defence and a justified man of the match. There were big performances throughout the squad with flankers Chris Fusaro and Josh Strauss also making metres at will and stopping Ulster, and 21-year-old Finn Russell impressed with ball in hand and kicking on his first home start at outside-half. It wasn’t a complete performance from the Warriors in attack compared with recent away outings at Leinster and Munster, but they were clinical enough in front of a record crowd at Scotstoun Stadium to close the gap to the Ulstermen in second to one point with a game in hand.
In a battle of the Pro12’s best two defences, something had to give. Ulster’s defence had already shown this month that it was susceptible to leaking points with the pressure on and the missed tackles cost them as the Warriors surged forward in the final 50 minutes. Cardiff Blues may have needed penalties to overcome Mark Anscombe’s side, but the Warriors are a more ruthless outfit on the attack. It is rare to see Ulster’s intensity in defence drop, but it was notable as Maitland burst through in the final minute of the first half, while the failure to repel a driving maul in the second half allowed wing Seymour—a former Ulster product—to spin off and find his way through a pile of bodies. The third try, the result of another line break and missed tackle, was awarded by the TMO despite replays showing that Bennett looked to have lost control when attempting to ground the ball, but the game was already beyond the Irish province, who have suffered three defeats in their last four matches in all competitions. Much has been made of Ulster’s growing injury list with Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best, John Afoa, Robbie Diack and Stephen Ferris on the sidelines and Ulster were short on depth on the bench. The loss of props Ricky Lutton, Tom Court and Declan Fitzpatrick— again—won’t help matters. With a home tie against Leinster and a visit to Thomond Park to face Munster on the final day of the season to come, there’s a very real chance that one of Ulster or Munster could slip out of the top four if, as expected, fifth-place Ospreys go on to win their final three matches.
Famously, no club has ever lost a home semi-final in the various iterations of the Celtic League. That’s something the Warriors know too well from three semi-final defeats, two at the hands of Leinster in as many years. No Scottish side has ever reached the final and that’s something the Warriors are hoping to put right this season. Six matches ago, with two games in hand over their rivals from the two postponed matches over the winter, Townsend’s side were unlucky to lose 28-25 against Leinster at the RDS, but have won five on the bounce since thanks, in part, to impressive defensive displays which have thwarted the considerable attacking threats of the Scarlets, Ospreys, Munster and, now, Ulster to move comfortably into the top four. The mammoth task of playing on eight consecutive weekends is down to the final three matches—all against teams in the bottom half of the table, including the two Italian sides which are seen as gimmes—with next week’s derby at Scotstoun against Edinburgh now the ‘biggest’ biggest game of the season, a line trotted out by the club for each of their recent matches. For the Warriors, it will not just be about bragging rights and keeping the 1872 Cup in the west of Scotland, but pushing for their first top two finish which would bring a home semi-final to Scotstoun on the weekend of 16/17/18 May. Townsend has conceded three wins may not be enough and the lack of try-scoring bonus points—just one in 19 in games—this season could prove costly. That’s an added pressure on the Warriors as they fly the flag for Scottish rugby and look to write a new chapter in the history of professional rugby in Scotland, but as they’ve already shown this season they can go to Thomond Park and the RDS and put in stunning performances and should still fancy their chances of becoming the first club to win an away semi if it comes to it.
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