|Heineken Champions Cup Pool Three|
|Ulster (10) 25|
|Tries: Reidy, McCloskey, McBurney Cons: Cooney 2 Pens: Cooney 2|
|Harlequins (10) 24|
|Tries: Dombrandt, Elia 2 Cons: Smith 3 Pens: Smith|
John Cooney landed a 79th-minute penalty to maintain Ulster’s winning Champions Cup run as they snatched a 25-24 home victory over Harlequins.
Alex Dombrandt and Sean Reidy traded first-half tries as the sides went into the break level.
Stuart McCloskey’s score put the hosts ahead before two converted Elia Elia tries gave Quins a nine-point lead.
But Adam McBurney crossed with 13 minutes left before Cooney landed his decisive kick from the 10-metre line.
It looked as though Quins had done enough to secure what would have been an excellent win to ignite their own European campaign in an engrossing second half.
However with two defeats from their opening three games, their chances of making the quarter-finals appear all but over.
The sides meet again at the Stoop next week, where Ulster will have to find a more consistent 80 minutes if they are to turn over the English Premiership side on their own patch.
A game of two halves
A breathless second half means the game will go down as another memorable European encounter at the Kingspan Stadium, however the opening 40 minutes of the game will not live long in the memory.
After Cooney and Marcus Smith each landed a penalty, Quins hit the front in the 25th minute with dynamic number eight Alex Dombrandt bulldozing his way over from close range as the visitors dominated the forwards battle.
The try sparked a response from Ulster with Reidy levelling six minutes later with a converted try of his own, collecting McCloskey’s offload after the centre was found by a wonderful Billy Burns crossfield kick.
Quins were too often guilty of cheaply turning the ball over in their over half, indeed Reidy’s try came after Iain Henderson had wrestled posession back for his side inside Harlequins’ 22.
Ulster went into the break on the front foot and will have been disappointed not to have capitalised on the opportunities that were afforded to them by careless Quins play.
McCloskey leads way for Ulster as Quins front up
Amid a frustrating first-half spectacle, the bulldozing work of centre McCloskey was undoubtedly the high point from an Ulster perspective.
His direct running and willingness to take the ball into contact became Ulster’s go-to option as they sought to punch holes into an impressive Harlequins defence.
Four minutes into the second half the ball was shifted left to McCloskey, who powered through Ross Chisholm to give Ulster the lead.
Despite falling behind Quins had much to be pleased with as the game neared its final quarter, particularly their scrum dominance.
The set-piece yielded a third Quins penalty on 55 minutes and captain Chris Robshaw opted to kick to the corner, with Smith having missed a seemingly straightforward penalty five minutes earlier.
From the lineout Elia rumbled his way over as the pendulum swung once again.
The hooker would have his second try just three minutes later as the visitors opened up a nine-point lead.
Dombrandt made an interception on his own line to lead a Quins charge down the field, which ended with Elia taking advantage of an open lane to run in from the 22.
McBurney score gives Ulster hope
In tight situations this season Ulster have so often looked to number eight Marcell Coetzee who has delivered big plays in big moments.
However the South African was unusually subdued on Saturday and was removed from the action 15 minutes for the end with Matty Rea coming on.
Another replacement, hooker McBurney, was at the back of Ulster’s rolling maul in the 67th minute as the hosts found a response that lifted the Belfast crowd.
The noise that met the try was bettered nine minutes later when the referee pinged Quins at the breakdown allowing Cooney the chance of a match winning penalty.
The scrum-half, as he so often has done, landed his kick to earn a huge win.
Ulster: Stockdale; Ludik, Marshall McCloskey, Gilroy; Burns, Cooney; O’Sullivan, Herring, Moore, O’Connor, Henderson; Reidy, Murphy, Coetzee.
Replacements: McBurney, Warwick, O’Toole, Treadwell, Rea, Shanahan, Johnston, Faddes.
Harlequins: Chisholm; Ismaiel, Campagnaro, Lang, Ibitoye; Smith, Care; Marler, Elia, Sinckler, Lewies, Cavubati; Kunatani, Robshaw, Dombrandt.
Replacements: Musk, Auterac, Kerrod, Lamb, Lawday, Landajo, Saili, Goneva.