Glasgow Warriors were ultimately edged out in their opening match of the 2021/22 United Rugby Championship season this evening, coming up on the wrong side of a nine-try thriller in Belfast.
Tries from George Horne, Johnny Matthews and Jamie Dobie, allied with a penalty try and a Player of the Match performance from Rory Darge, at least earned the Warriors two points for their efforts, with Ulster emerging victorious by 35-29.
Whilst undoubtedly well aware of the importance of making a strong start, it was in fact the hosts that stormed out of the blocks in front of nearly 15,000 supporters at the Kingspan Stadium. A midfield break from Stuart McCloskey and support from Robert Baloucoune saw Ulster set up camp in the Glasgow 22, before a speculative pass was deliberately knocked-on by Cole Forbes. The Glasgow full-back was sent to the sin-bin, with referee Ben Whitehouse awarding a penalty try to Ulster for good measure.
Yet despite the early setback, the Warriors were in the mood to show what they could do with ball in hand. Summer arrivals Jack Dempsey and Sione Tuipulotu in particular were looking lively, the latter dove-tailing well with Sam Johnson in the midfield.
Indeed, the centre partnership was the catalyst for Glasgow’s opening score of the evening on 15 minutes, just as Forbes looked to return to the field. A cut-out pass from Johnson was brilliantly gathered by Tuipulotu out wide on halfway and the centre burst clear, running over Baloucoune and into the 22. Whilst a scrambling Billy Burns got back to stop the centre, Horne was on hand as always to gather the inside ball and dive over in the corner. Duncan Weir’s conversion was wide, but the match was on.
The Warriors were now established in the match, putting all manner of pressure onto the Ulster lineout through Richie Gray and Ryan Wilson. Despite that fact, however, it would be through the lineout that Ulster would register their second try. After turning down a kick at goal from in front of the posts, the home side were vindicated as Bradley Roberts found himself driven over from a five-metre maul for a try converted by John Cooney.
Straight from the restart, Glasgow reduced the deficit; excellent pressure from Kyle Steyn allowed the effervescent Darge to win the penalty at the breakdown, with Weir knocking over the penalty from 30 metres.
The momentum was swinging the way of the Warriors, and right on the stroke of half-time the visitors made it count. Phase after phase of pressure in the Ulster 22 forced the hosts to concede repeated penalties, allowing Simon Berghan to flip the offload to Forbes within sight of the whitewash. The full-back was held up short, but from a matter of inches there was no stopping Matthews from crashing over for a score. Ross Thompson – on for Weir after the latter took a knock to the head – added the extras, and Glasgow led by one at the interval.
It was a short-lived advantage, however, as Ulster started the second half as rapidly as they had started the first. Just two minutes after the restart, Marty Moore bundled his way over from a metre out, with Nathan Doak – himself on for the injured Cooney – making no mistake with the conversion.
The home side made it a quickfire double on 48 minutes, with the bounce of the rugby ball playing a crucial role. Advantage in hand, a speculative chip ahead from Burns broke the way of Jacob Stockdale, who in turn fed the supporting Nick Timoney for the try. Doak once again converted, and Ulster led 28-15.
A fever-pitch atmosphere inside the Kingspan was ratcheted up another notch as Glasgow looked for a quick riposte, co-captain Fraser Brown immediately influencing proceedings with a textbook turnover. His work at the breakdown sparked the play that led to his side’s third try; as advantage was being played by the referee, Rufus McLean’s dive for the corner was deemed to have been halted illegally by James Hume. For the second time in the match, a penalty try and yellow card were duly awarded, much to the chagrin of the home supporters.
In a mirror image of the first half, though, it would the side down to 14 men who would score next. Attempting to exit his own half, Thompson’s kick was charged down by Will Addison, and whilst the fly-half was able to hunt down the Ulsterman he was powerless to stop the offload to Doak for the try. The Ulster scrum-half duly converted his own score, giving the home side a 35-22 lead.
Undeterred, the Warriors hit back with an early contender for try of the season. A scrum in midfield saw the ball whipped wide to Steyn, with the winger duly beating Stockdale on the outside and racing from 22 to 22. When the ball was recycled, Johnson’s burst through the middle was continued by Darge, the openside beating three defenders with his footwork and taking play to within 10 metres. A half-break from Thompson got Glasgow over the gain-line, before Dobie collected the inside ball to cross the whitewash. Thompson converted, and the stage was set for a grandstand finish.
Try as they might, however, there was to be no late drama under the Friday night lights, as Ulster hung on to open the season with a win. There will be no time for Glasgow to dwell on the result, though; a visit from the CellC Sharks awaits in just eight days’ time.
Kick-off 5:30 pm