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GUNNERS END ULSTER UNBEATEN RUN IN MURRAYFIELD THRILLER

Gunners: 20 (17) Ulster: 15 (9)



Some great sporting and cultural events come around only once every four years - the Olympics, World Cups, and albums from  legendary Glasgow operators,  The Blue Nile.  At the current rate of progress, the same can be said of Edinburgh wins over Ulster.  Brendan Laney's boot secured the Gunners' previous win, away in Belfast in September 2002.  Tonight, it was Chris Paterson's cultured right foot and a brilliant try from Ben Cairns that saw the Murrayfield men prevail over the visitors in a pulsating match that was a credit to both teams and their supporters.  In the process, last year's champions' 12 match unbeaten run came to an end.  And surely it will not be so long before the Gunners repeat the feat.

It was tough.  Both teams tried to run the ball from all angles, but both defences were rock solid.  Ulster looked to dominate the forward exchanges from the off.  But, save for a shaky ten minute spell early in the half, the Gunners gave as good as they got, with the pack fronting up to their much vaunted opponents with aggression and discipline.

Typical of their determination was Allan Jacobsen's scrummage jousting with visting tighthead Young; a battle that the PL Panther edged.  With the home side slugging it out, Ulster at times lost their cool.  Blindside Ferris, for example, although carrying the ball to good effect throughout, was also prominent in a number of off the ball clashes.

Ross Rennie put in another outstanding performance at openside in a home pack whose support running and set piece work were much improved on last week's outing against Leinster.  Meanwhile, Phil Godman put in an authoritiative performance as playmaker, and Cairns shone in Simon Webster's place on the wing.  Although Rob Dewey is not yet back to his best, he generally bullocked over the gainline whenever taking the ball up.

Lynn Howells has rightly identified consistency as the key area of Edinburgh's game that he must improve.  As he starts work at Murrayfield this Monday, he will be in no doubt that there is plenty of promising material to work with after this hard-nosed performance. 

The evening got off to a poor start, however.  For the second game in a row, poor work at the opening kick off saw Murray spill the ball.  Although the Gunners defended well as Ulster attacked close in, then spun the ball wide, it was not long before the home side gave up a penalty under pressure, which David Humphreys converted after only three minutes.  Already, the visiting pack were looking ominously strong.

But five minutes later, skipper Paterson decided to knock a kickable penalty into touch.  A great Gunner drive punched the ball deep into the Ulster 22.  With the maul rumbling closer, the referee played advantage for several Ulster outriders taking it down.  With the pressure off, Godman knocked over a smart dropped goal.

Two minutes later, a long, deep clearance from Hugo saw full back Cunningham under pressure from the chasing players.  Isolated, he held on on the ground and Paterson knocked over the easy penalty to give the home side a 6-3 lead.  Handbags appeared in the ensuing melee, as the visting pack realised that they were not to have everything their own way tonight.

And there could have been more joy for Edinburgh from the succeeding kick off, as Rennie broke through the defence and surged towards goal, only to run out of support as the defence caught up. As the first quarter came to an end, Paterson did add to the home lead after Godman was tackled in the 22 during another useful attack, only for Ulster hands to slow up the ruck ball - as happened so often throughout. But Humphreys pulled a penalty back shortly afterwards when Edinburgh were penalised for the same offence - 9-6.

Once again, Edinburgh attacked from the restart, and a fine chip from Cairns into the enemy in-goal area saw the young winger haring for the touchdown. Bartholomeusz beat him to the ball, but it was touch and go whether the youngster had been obstructed in the chase.  A penalty try would have been very welcome at that point, but referee Watkins made the right decision in awarding the dropout.

At this point, Humphreys, so often a thorn in Edinburgh's side in the past, was at it again; his astute tactical kicking clawing back some territory for Ulster.  And the veteran knocked over another penalty with five minutes of the half to go to level the score. Almost immediately, however, Paterson regained the lead for Edinburgh after, you guessed it, another Ulster ruck offence.

Better was to come for the Gunners, with a thrilling move started from deep in their own 22.   Ally Hogg embarked on a stately run that saw the No 8 burst through the defence and surge to the Ulster 10.  Dougie Hall, The Dingwall Dynamo, was there to take the offload on to the Ulster 22, where quick ruck ball was secured.  The ball was flipped to Mustchin, who fed Cairns on the wing with a lot to do.  The youngster beat two despairing tackles to nip over in the corner for the unconverted try that gave Edinburgh a 17-9 lead at the break - just about deserved on the run of play.

The second half began with another frustrating Edinburgh error, setting up an Ulster attack.  Humphreys converted a penalty in front of the posts with a minute gone.  That set up a period of almost fifteen minutes of Edinburgh territorial domination, kept out only by Humphreys' relieving kicks and some sound visiting defence.

Although both sides ran the ball ambitiously, the defences were up to the task, with a missed penalty each for Paterson and Humphreys the only real scoring chances until the last quarter hour.

Hogg was desperately unlucky when, on his feet, he stole the ball from the tackled Humphreys, only to find himself penalised in front of the posts.  The resulting penalty brought Ulster to just two points behind with ten minutes to go.  At the back of many observers' minds, surely, was the worry that the champions could still nick this game if they got their stand-off within kicking range once again.

Yet after the nth Ulster ruck offfence of the night, Paterson's fourth penalty of the match stretched the lead to 5 points once again, with the clock ticking down.

In baseball, there is a breed of pitcher known as the "reliever" whose role is to come into a game in the final few innings to close out the win.  Enter Duncan Hodge, who was to do just that for Edinburgh, his experience and sound touch kicking earning him a "save" this evening.  But there were to be a few scares on the way. 

Hodge had Edinburgh playing the game in Ulster's half before a refereeing decision that could have been costly halted their momentum.  Quick ball spun along the line had put Cairns away in space in a dangerous position on the left wing beyond the Ulster 10.  A try was definitely on.  But Edinburgh were entitled to feel a bit miffed when they were then called for crossing; Ulster had been doing pretty much the same thing all night without incurring the referee's mild displeasure, let alone being penalised.

And, to their credit, as the game headed into injury time, the champions threw everything they could at the home side in a desperate effort to score the try that had eluded them during regulation time.  But immense Edinburgh defence and great discipline snuffed out attack after attack.  And it was Ulster who would give away the crucial penalty after injury time was over.  The Gunners hoofed the ball into touch and rightly celebrate a victory that bodes very well for the coming season.  With two of their toughest home games successfully negotiated already, Lynn Howells can now take the reins secure in the knowledge that these guys will be contenders this year.

Or, at least, they will be if they can maintain their focus in the less glamorous games, starting with next week's visit to Galway.  Connacht lost to visiting Llanelli by some margin at the Sportsground tonight.  But they have had a solid start to the season, playing in front of decent crowds.  If Edinburgh score tries next week, they will win.  But if it is close, expect Mark McHugh's phenomenal kicking to see the Galwegians home.  Now is the time to kick on, not rest on laurels.


BONUS POINT WATCH: The Gunners conceded the losers' bonus to Ulster, enabling the visitors to inch ahead to third in the league.  Edinburgh now sit fourth.

MAN OF THE MATCH: ROSS RENNIE.  The man was everywhere in another fine performance at openside.  The youngster looks rather at home at this level.

SCORERS:  Edinburgh:  Paterson 4P, Godman 1DG, Cairns 1T

                      Ulster: Humphreys 5P

Edinburgh: Hugo; C Paterson (capt), M Di Rollo, R Dewey, B Cairns; P Godman, M Blair; A Jacobsen, D Hall, A Dickinson, M Mustchin, S Murray, A Strokosch, R Rennie, A Hogg. Replacements: A Kelly, D Hewett, F Pringle, D Callam, G Laidlaw, D Hodge, M Pyke.

Ulster: B Cunningham, M Bartholemeusz, P Steinmetz, P Wallace, A Maxwell, D Humphreys, I Boss; J Fitzpatrick, R Best (capt), B Young, M McCullough, T Barker, S Ferris, K Dawson, R Wilson. Replacements: P Shields, T Court, L Stevenson, N McMillan, K Campbell, K Maggs, S Young.

Referee: Watkins (WRU)