Ulster 22-15 Bath: Ulster reach Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals
|Heineken Champions Cup Pool Three|
|Ulster (7) 22|
|Tries: Coetzee, Baloucoune, Addison Cons: Cooney 2 Pen: B Burns|
|Bath (7) 15|
|Tries: McConnochie, Batty Con: Burns Pen: F Burns|
Ulster edged out Bath with a 22-15 win in Belfast to advance to the last eight of the Heineken Champions Cup.
Marcell Coetzee and Ruaridh McConnochie traded first-half tries before Robert Baloucoune and Will Addison scored to put Ulster in control after half-time.
Bath replacement Ross Batty reduced the deficit with a try before being sent off for a high tackle on John Cooney.
Clermont's win over Harlequins means Ulster advance as sixth seeds and will face Toulouse in April.
For Harlequins it is a third-placed finish in pool three, with their losing bonus point taking them to 10 points over the six matches with Bath propping up the table on five points.
Hosts off the boil in poor first half
In charge of their own destiny with regards to securing a quarter-final birth, there was a sigh of relief around Kingspan Stadium when Coetzee scored off the back of a rolling maul after six minutes to put the hosts in the ascendancy.
However despite trailing early, it was Bath who dictated the pattern of the game as they sought to dominate the territorial battle and keep Ulster penned inside their own half.
With Ulster's penalty count high and their fluency missing, Bath were invited to make inroads as the hosts struggled to find any kind of rhythm.
After stealing an Ulster line-out, the English Premiership side set up camp inside the 22 and drew level as the bounce of Burns' cross-field kick deceived Jacob Stockdale allowing McConnochie to collect and score.
Aside from their early try, Ulster's most promising opening in the first half came when Billy Burns and Coetzee broke up the field, only for flanker Tom Ellis to deliberately obstruct Cooney's support line with Coetzee poised to send the scrum-half under the posts.
Ellis was sent to the sin-bin but Ulster failed to profit from their temporary numerical superiority as inaccuracy continued to dominate a frustrating spectacle.
Ulster find fluency after half-time
The opening 10 minutes of the second half proved decisive, with Ulster producing glimpses of the scintillating high-tempo play that has been the hallmark of their best performances this season.
A sweeping move through the hands found Addison in space on the right, with the full-back stepping inside before a beautiful backhanded pass released Baloucoune who re-established Ulster's lead.
Addison, set to challenge Jordan Larmour for Ireland's number 15 jersey in the Six Nations, was forced off after 52 minutes having received a couple of heavy hits, but not before he made the telling contribution, finishing a flowing back-line move in the corner.
In a game in which neither side were able to assert themselves as the dominant force for a sustained period, that Ulster scored twice during their brief purple patch proved to be decisive as the hosts took a two-score lead into the final half hour.
Batty try soon followed by his red card
The game soon stumbled back into the same stop-start contest of the opening half, with Ulster looking unlikely to streak away despite their nine-point advantage.
Instead it was Bath and replacement hooker Batty who produced the next score and re-introduced a degree of angst inside the sold-out Belfast stadium.
The rolling-maul try in the 66th minute reduced Bath's deficit to four and threatened to add a late twist to the game and indeed Ulster's quarter-final ambitions.
However eight minutes later, Batty's high hit on Cooney was met, after a considerable stoppage, with a red card allowing Billy Burns to extend his side's lead to seven and alleviate some of the tension.
From there, Ulster navigated their way to victory and the four points required to secure their sixth-place quarter-final.
As was the case when they defeated Harlequins in Belfast earlier in the campaign, Ulster will be disappointed with their overall display but ultimately satisfied that their job is done for now.
Head coach Dan McFarland and his side know that a similar performance in the quarter-final would most likely bring an end to their European campaign, but similarly McFarland will be comforted by the knowledge that his side are capable of a far better performance.
Ulster: Addison; Baloucoune, Marshall, McCloskey, Stockdale; Burns, Cooney; McGrath, Herring, O'Toole; O'Connor, Henderson (capt); Reidy, Murphy, Coetzee.
Replacements: McBurney, O'Sullivan, Kane, Treadwell, Timoney, Shanahan, Johnston, Gilroy.
Bath: Homer; Hamer- Webb, Wright, Willison, McConnochie; Burns, Fox; Obano, Walker, Stuart, Garvey, Ewels, Ellis, Underhill, Bayliss.
Replacements: Batty, Noguera, Nixon, McNally, Williams, Cook, Priestland, De Glanville.