Rey Lee-Lo struck what could prove to be a decisive blow in the race for the Guinness PRO12 semi-finals, as his double helped Cardiff Blues draw 24-24 at Ulster.
The hosts were looking to go third in the league standings with a win over the mid-table Blues, and made a great start as Paddy Jackson grabbed the game’s opening score, before going ahead again with a penalty try after Sam Warburton had pegged them back.
But while the visitors came out firing after half-time, centre Lee-Lo crossing twice in 13 minutes to send the Blues clear. Ulster were not down and out as Luke Marshall surged through to level ahead of a frantic – but scoreless – final ten minutes.
Both teams were looking to attack at the start of the contest, and after Alex Cuthbert made several powerful carries, Ulster skipper Rory Best was penalised and Gareth Anscombe was able to draw first blood from the tee.
But just two minutes later, the hosts were down the other end of the field and had crossed for the first try of the night – Charles Piutau made the break before Ruan Pienaar found the space behind the Blues defence.
The South African’s kick found his half-back partner Jackson, who gratefully collected the ball and crossed before converting his own try to make it 7-3.
Blaine Scully was forced off with an injury, replaced by Matthew Morgan, but after more back and forth play, Cardiff turned the ball over deep in Ulster territory and piled on the pressure.
And after a Willis Halaholo break, the stage was set for Warburton to crash over from close range on 22 minutes and Anscombe knocked over the conversion shortly after.
Piutau continued to threaten for the hosts, making a searing break from deep inside his own territory into the Blues half, before the Ulstermen won a penalty in front of the posts.
Skipper Rory Best was decisive, and his decision to kick for the corner was vindicated as Ulster rumbled towards the line from the line-out, but the maul was hauled down and referee Ian Davies awarded a penalty try.
Jackson’s routine conversion made it 14-10 with 12 minutes remaining in an already exhilarating half, and the Irish side were in full flow when Stuart Olding sent Jared Payne clean through the defensive line, but a good scramble defence from Cardiff prevented Piutau from scoring.
Another injury blow struck the visitors when try-scorer Warburton limped off, replaced by former Ulster favourite Nick Williams before the break.
But despite that set-back an excellent score from Lee-Lo put the Blues back into the lead; Halaholo dummied his way past the defence to take his side to the five-metre line, and after a penalty was kicked into the corner by Anscombe, his offload set up the centre to score under the posts despite the last-ditch tackle from Piutau.
Anscombe’s radar was unwavering again with the conversion, putting his side three points clear at 17-14, and the Blues’ level did not drop as they continued to pile on the pressure in the Ulster 22.
Ulster levelled the scores when Best pointed to the sticks after a penalty at the breakdown and Jackson struck the ball over, but Cardiff struck a killer blow on the hour mark.
It was Lee-Lo again who touched down, beating Olding on the outside before stepping the final defender, and the flawless Anscombe made it 24-17 with the conversion.
Ulster were not going to lie down however, and the game was set for a grandstand final ten minutes when Marshall latched on to Jackson’s offload to cut inside and score – Jackson levelling the clash up with the extras.
The home crowd were bouncing and sensed a match-winning score, but despite the end-to-end finish both defences held firm.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €35 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie.
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final