Ulster claim vital URC win over the Sharks at Ravenhill to secure a home quarter-final
Ulster made it look nervy at the death but kept their cool to claim a 24-21 victory over the Cell C Sharks in the United Rubgy Championship to secure a home quarter-final.
Ulster had kept the Sharks scoreless at halftime, and at one point in the second period led 17-0.
Indeed the Ulstermen went into the final two minutes ten points ahead and with a lineout on the Sharks' five-metre line.
But a great turnover set up a nail-biting finish after Sharks substitute Grant Williams streaked down the pitch for a 79th-minute try.
There was still time for a kick-off after the conversion, and Ulster had to play some awkward phases of Sharks possession before Nathan Doak was able to launch a Nick Timoney turnover into the stands.
The win means that Ulster are guaranteed a home quarter-final in a fortnight's time, as they try to win the inaugural season of the URC.
It was fitting that the game ended on a moment of breakdown dominance from Ulster's No.7.
Timoney was named URC Player of the Match and he made a number of crucial steals during Sharks pressure.
Ulster's defence had been the standout feature of the first 60 minutes of the game, as a Sharks team laden with World-Cup winning Springboks were unable to cross the try-line.
The away team had chances in the Ulster 22 from the early stages of the game, but were unable to make this count, conceding soft penalties on offsides or handling errors.
The home side took advantage of some such looseness, and some generous refereeing, to score the first three points of the game with an early John Cooney penalty in front of the posts.
Ulster held their ground in the first half at the set-piece against the big men from KwaZulu-Natal.
Despite the best efforts of front-rowers Ox Nche and Bongi Mbonambi, Ulster's scrum stayed mostly intact and provided the platform for some slick backline moves.
During one foray into the Sharks 22, Ulster launched a lovely strike play to send Ethan McIlroy away on the wing.
The Sharks defence scrambled back, but not before McIlroy could perform an outrageous backhanded offload to Michael Lowry on a support line.
Lowry crashed over the Durban side's defence and logged the first try of the game.
After weathering some late Sharks pressure in the first half, Ulster pressed home their advantage at the start of the second period.
Stuart McCloskey ran on to a sumptuous offload from captain Iain Henderson and then brushed aside several tackle attempts to dot the ball down between the sticks.
Going 17 points down seemed to jolt the Sharks into life, for they followed the second try with a period of sustained attacks in Ulster territory.
For nearly ten minutes they battered away close to the Ulster try line without reward, before replacement prop Ntuthuko Mchunu barreled over after a tap and go penalty.
Ulster seemed to take affront to conceding for the first time and responded immediately with a superb team try.
After a sharp Billy Burns pass sent the exceptional Robert Baloucoune into space, the winger fixed the outside defender before dropping the ball off to John Cooney.
Centre James Hume swung around Cooney's left shoulder to receive another pass and then raced in for Ulster's final try of the night.
It was a big match for Ulster's young stars Hume and Baloucoune, as they were facing off positionally against Springbok stalwarts Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi.
Both Am and Mapimpi looked dangerous, and their huge intelligence and ability were on display throughout.
The pair struggled to fully assert themselves in the game, however, as the Sharks inaccurate play killed attacking momentum.
The Durban side did rouse themselves enough to score a second try, with Marius Louw getting on the end of a nice break.
It proved to be too little too late, for even after Williams's last-minute try the Sharks were unable to get the score they needed to either draw or win this entertaining tussle in Belfast.