European Wrap: Cooney stars again for Ulster as Warriors show fight

Bradley West
11 January 2020

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With the Heineken Champions Cup group stage quickly reaching its climax, every result this weekend was crucial, but Saturday was a difficult day for the Guinness PRO14 teams competing in Europe.

There was one side that didn’t taste defeat though as Glasgow Warriors stood toe-to-toe with Exeter Chiefs in Pool 2 in a 31-31 draw at Scotstoun, although the Scottish side will be kicking themselves they didn’t get the victory.

Ospreys’ disappointing campaign continued with their fifth straight loss in this season’s competition at home to Saracens, while Connacht also bow out of this year’s competition after defeat at home to Toulouse.

Despite going down to Clermont in France, Ulster still look odds on to qualify for the quarter-finals with Dan McFarland’s side sitting second in Pool 3 on 17 points.

Warriors left to rue missed chances

It was a ding-dong battle in the first half in Scotland, with the Glasgow Warriors and Exeter sharing six tries in the first 40 minutes to go in 24 points apiece at the interval.

Tommy Seymour and Huw Jones crossed early for Dave Rennie’s side, as they searched for a bonus-point victory to keep their hopes of qualification alive, but ill-discipline was to eventually catch up with the hosts.

Warriors were 17-10 up after 25 minutes but after Callum Gibbins saw yellow for a shoulder charge on Jacques Vermeulen, they soon began to unravel. Matt Kvesic scored the first of his two tries two four minutes later, before Vermeulen touched down before Gibbins could return to the field.

The hosts were nothing if not resilient though, and they made the scores level just before the half-time whistle as George Horne dotted down. Jones then had opportunities to put Glasgow back ahead but fluffed his lines, and as Fraser Brown was sent to the bin, they were made to pay when Kvesic went over for his second.

A tale of two kicks then decided it, as Adam Hastings converted sublimely after Nikola Matawalu went over by the touchline, before Stuart Hogg had a last-gasp 60m penalty crash against the crossbar for the Chiefs.

The draw leaves Warriors with a mountain to climb next weekend, as they currently rank fourth out of the current second-placed sides.

Ulster down but not out

Qualification to the quarter-finals is still firmly in Ulster’s own hands, despite falling to a 29-13 defeat to Clermont in France.

This was the first time Dan McFarland’s side hadn’t emerged victorious from a European clash this season, as the French side proved too strong on home soil.

As is so often the case this season, Ulster had John Cooney to thank for their points as the scrum-half knocked over two penalties as well as converting his own early try.

That score eight minutes in was as good as it got for Ulster, as a couple of Morgan Parra penalties and Camille Lopez’s drop-goal made it 10-9 to the Irish side at the break. This despite Parra being sent to the sin-bin midway through the first half.

The visitors couldn’t make their man advantage count, and were made to pay as Clermont came into their own in the second stanza, with Alivereti Raka touching down to give them the lead.

Try as Ulster might, they couldn’t break the home side’s defence for a second time, and with the clock ticking down George Maola added some gloss to the scoreline with another late score.

Defeat will have hurt for Cooney and Co. but a win next weekend at home to Bath will secure their place in the last eight.

Connacht cannot qualify

The dream is over for Connacht for another year, as the Irish side couldn’t find the victory they needed to keep their dreams alive as they went down 21-7 against a powerful Toulouse side.

The home faithful had their hopes risen by an early award of a penalty try by referee Luke Pearce, after a succession of penalties conceded by the visitors, which saw Joe Tekori see yellow.

Colby Fainga’a soon followed him to the bin, and the French side capitalised with Jerome Kaino being the benefactor of the barrage on the Connacht line.

From then on, the unbeaten table-toppers showed their class, with Julien Marchand touching down just before the break to send the sides in with the scores at 14-7.

Toulouse came out for the second-half in the same manner they had finished the first, and went even further ahead when a Jack Carty clearance was closed down and former Connacht man Pita Ahki went over.

That was the end of the scoring, but the card count rose by two before time was out, as Yoann Huget saw yellow with ten minutes remaining, before Zack Holmes saw red for a dangerous tackle.

It may be over for Connacht in Europe, but results need to change for them soon, with this being their fourth successive defeat in all competitions.

Ospreys falter against 14-man Saracens

Four minutes into this one, and things were looking good for Ospreys as Saracens’ Rhys Carre was dismissed for a shoulder-led tackle on Dan Evans.

The Welsh side couldn’t make the most of 76 minutes with a man advantage though, and eventually succumbed to a 12th straight defeat in all competitions, going down 22-15.

Manu Vunipola had already converted a penalty before Carre saw red, with the 19-year-old adding another three before the half-hour mark. The Welsh side only had a Luke Price three-pointer to show for their efforts up until that point, before Evans went over to make it 12-10 Sarries at the break.

And when Evans added a second try after the break, the long-suffering home fans must have been dreaming about the most unlikely of victories.

But they were brought back to earth eight minutes later when Alex Lewington put Sarries back ahead, and from there they never looked like relinquishing the lead, as Ospreys’ dismal European campaign continues.

Contrasting fortunes in Challenge Cup

It was another mixed bag in the Challenge Cup for the Guinness PRO14 sides, as Edinburgh went down 32-17 to Bordeaux in France, with the home side taking control of Pool 3 and securing qualification.

Dragons were swept aside by a rampant Castres side 42-14, with the Welsh outfit conceding five tries before they managed to get on the scoreboard themselves. But with bottom side Enisei-STM coming up next weekend, a quarter-final place is all but assured.

A late George Biagi try gave Zebre victory over Stade Francais on their visit to France, while Scarlets lost out in the battle of the top two in Pool 2, as Toulon continued their unbeaten European campaign with victory in Wales.

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