With the squad severely depleted thanks to the strong Ulster contingent in the Ireland training squad for the Autumn internationals, the starting XV displayed no fewer than nine changes from that which defeated Newport-Gwent Dragons Friday last - seven of them in the pack. Lewis Stevenson was the only starting forward from Rodney Parade to retain his place, and notable changes elsewhere saw Number Eight Wilson make his return to Ravenhill after an absence of over four years, and Ricky Andrew claim his first senior cap at full-back. Stephen Ferris, temporarily released from the international squad to improve on his match fitness, made a welcome return at number six.
The early signs were positive, as Wilson put in a thunderous tackle on his own '22', Andrew made a couple of nerve-settling darts ball in hand, and Payne illustrated that he had effortlessly made the transition from full-back to centre with a strong run through the Edinburgh midfield, all in the first five minutes. However it was Edinburgh who made the first veritable break for the line in the 10th minute, and they capitalised on a sloppy Ulster fumble in their own 22-metre scrum to pilfer possession and supply Tom Brown, who finished in the left-hand corner. Gregor Hunter converted to upset the formbook a little further at Ulster 0 Edinburgh 7.
Worse still was to follow, as Pienaar appeared to succumb to a knock picked up in the lead-up to the visitors' try, and was forced into an early exit, which was, thankfully, to prove only temporary. His replacement, Niall O'Connor, was only on the pitch for a matter of seconds before being called upon, kicking over a central 22-metre penalty, but his effort was cancelled out on 20 minutes by a similar Hunter kick. With Pienaar's injury patched up, the Springbok retook the field at the beginning of the second quarter, in time to see a sublime steal by Wilson at the Edinburgh lineout set Ulster's gears back in motion.
Ulster broke with pace and, although Chris Cochrane was unlucky not to be awarded the try by the left-hand flag in the first instance, strong Ulster scrummaging at the subsequent set-play forced the Scots to buckle behind their own line, and referee Nigel Owens had no hesitation in awarding the penalty try. Pienaar converted and it was Ulster 10 Edinburgh 10 just before the half-hour.
With Ulster now playing with the panache commensurate to their position of league leaders, seconds later Wilson was instrumental in the second try, carrying the ball adeptly before supplying Craig Gilroy at the right moment. The winger's pace and trickery carried him past several Edinburgh comers, after which he supplied Payne, who had the legs to outstrip the defence and slide over for the score. Pienaar converted, and was able to add to his personal tally four minutes later when he blocked an attempted Hunter clearance, and ran the entirety of the Edinburgh half for his second charge-down try in as many weeks. His conversion made it Ulster 24 Edinburgh 10.
Ulster proved unable to preserve the scale of their lead for long, though, Brown grabbing his second try - converted by Hunter - just before the break.
Half-Time Score Ulster 24 Edinburgh 17
Hunter drew first blood in the second period for the visitors with a 42nd-minute penalty, and with Ferris feeling the effects of two high-impact tackles, he was soon replaced by Nick Williams.
With their lead shorn to four points, and now bereft of their talisman Ferris, the signs suddenly looked ominous for Ulster. However, Edinburgh were not to score again in the encounter, and it was the impressive aerial prowess of Neil McComb, whose considerable stature allowed him to be first to a misjudged up-and-under from Edinburgh's Greig Toinks, which put Ulster back in the driving seat. Although a knock-on blighted their progress in the first instance, quick recuperation and distribution at the flailing Edinburgh scrum gave Payne the chance to supply Wilson on the wing, and the former Northampton man sealed the bonus point by the flag. Pienaar's conversion compounded the lead at Ulster 31 Edinburgh 20 with just over 20 minutes to go.
Payne's second try of the evening came on 68 minutes, with the new half-back pairing of Pienaar and O'Connor - recently re-entered for Marshall - providing the assists from the Ulster scrum for the Kiwi, who slid between the posts. Pienaar's conversion put Ulster out of sight, and they could have been even further ahead four minutes later, had Mike McComish's try not been disallowed for what Mr Owens adjudged to be a failure by Gilroy to release the ball under a tackle in the lead-up.
Undeterred by this minor setback, Gilroy capped a fine Ulster attacking display in the final minute, winning the race to reach Pienaar's probing box kick as it dropped just over the try-line.
Full-Time Score Ulster 45 Edinburgh 20
(15 - 9) R Andrew; C Cochrane, J Payne, P Wallace, C Gilroy; R Pienaar, P Marshall
(1 - 8) C Black, N Brady (c), J Afoa, L Stevenson, N McComb, S Ferris, M McComish, R Wilson
Replacements (16 - 23) N Annett, R Lutton, A Macklin, R Diack, N Williams, N O'Connor, S Olding, P Nelson
(15 - 9) G Toinks; L Jones, J Houston, J King, T Brown; G Hunter, C Leck
(1 - 8) J Yapp, A Titterrell, W Nel, R McAlpine, G Gilchrist, S Cox (c), R Grant, S McInally
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Edinburgh Rugby Score Card|