Pienaar steers Ulster past Edinburgh
April 28, 2012
Ulster's Pedrie Wannenburg crashes over for the only try of the game at the Aviva Stadium
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Ruan Pienaar produced a faultless display to guide Ulster to a 22-19 victory over Edinburgh in their Heineken Cup semi-final showdown at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
The Springboks international notched 17 points with the boot and pulled the strings throughout an enthralling contest dominated by the Ulster pack that propelled the Irish province into their first final since they claimed Europe's top prize in 1999. A try from No.8 Pedrie Wannenburg set Ulster on their way but a gutsy Edinburgh never let them get out of sight with fly-half Greig Laidlaw landing four penalties. Replacement Jim Thompson grabbed a late score but it was too little, too late for an Edinburgh side who were left to rue a series of momentum-sapping errors as their euro dream died.
Edinburgh, looking to build on their stunning quarter-final victory over French giants Toulouse, showed plenty of intent in the early moments of the game with scrum-half Mike Blair and winger Tim Visser asking questions of the Ulster defence. However, it was Ulster who earned the first scoring opportunity with a solid scrum allowing Pienaar to deliver an early reminder of his class with an excellent long-range penalty. The set-back did little to dent Edinburgh's enthusiasm and their notable industry soon brought due reward via Laidlaw's equally assured boot that landed two penalties in two minutes.
Ulster's answer was to raise their game with Pienaar, playing at scrum-half with 20-year-old Patrick Jackson handed the No.10 jersey, involved heavily as they closed in on their rivals' line. The Edinburgh scrum creaked under severe pressure before Wannenburg powered over for the opening try. The replays suggested that the ball may have popped out of the scrum but referee Romain Poite had no qualms about awarding the score and Pienaar stepped up to add the extras.
Having weathered a storm, Edinburgh offered a lesson in ball retention to power deep inside the Ulster half with the result a promising 5m scrum - but their invention was their downfall with Ulster snaffling the ball and clearing the danger - but not for long with No.8 Netani Talei among those happy to lead the charge.
The raid proved fruitless but the pressure would reap dividends elsewhere with a frustrated Ulster fullback Stefan Terblanche sin-binned for striking Edinburgh's Ross Ford at a ruck just before the half hour. Edinburgh piled forward time and time again in Terblanche's absence but they would continue to fluff their lines in the shadow of the posts.
Instead it was Ulster who notched the only score of a crucial ten-minute period with Pienaar gleefully slotting another excellent kick after a sloppy error from Edinburgh winger Lee Jones who strayed offside as Laidlaw looked to clear his lines.
The bounce of the ball went Edinburgh's way just before the break and when Ulster flanker Stephen Ferris was penalised for knocking the ball down, Laidlaw was able to make it a four-point game.
With the game in the balance, the opening score of the second half was always going to be pivotal and Laidlaw made no mistake from the kicking tee after Ulster hooker Rory Best was penalised for his attempt to throw a spanner in Ulster's increasingly efficient works. But not for the first time Pienaar emerged as an invaluable game-changer.
A superb chip and chase saw the momentum shift significantly and having kicked to the corner for the lineout with a subsequent penalty, only a great tackle from Talei denied Ulster their second try. Ulster's pack refused to let Edinburgh off the hook and it looked like only a matter of time before they would be celebrating a second five-pointer. But a heroic defensive effort kept lock Dan Tuohy and Wannenburg at bay before Laidlaw stripped the ball away from his much bigger rival and sent it downfield.
However, penalties continued to undo much of Edinburgh's good work and Pienaar was faultless with two more penalties either side of the hour mark to ensure Edinburgh would need a converted score to level things up. They immediately set about that task but a horrible handling error from Ford inside the Ulster 22 put paid to a promising drive.
The intensity levels would then soar in a breathless few minutes as both sides made huge gains with superb defensive work just about shackling Ulster while Edinburgh's pain was more often than not self-inflicted with handling errors costing them dear.
The celebrations had already begun in the stands before the Ulster pack came up trumps once again and Pienaar's fifth and most straight-forward kick of the game all but ended Edinburgh's hopes. To their credit, Edinburgh refused to roll over with a superb sweeping move, spearheaded by Talei, ending with Thompson coasting over but the score - sealed with a Laidlaw conversion - would be the last act in a thrilling game.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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