Finn Russell’s nerveless conversion four minutes from time booked Glasgow Warriors’ place in the GUINNESS PRO12 final as they edged past a valiant Ulster 16-14 in a thrilling encounter at Scotstoun.
The Warriors ended the regular season top of the table but were in danger of becoming the first team in PRO12 history to lose a home semi-final until DTH van der Merwe’s late try and Russell’s conversion sealed their place in next Saturday’s showpiece at the Kingspan Stadium.
Glasgow beat Ulster 32-10 in the prelude to this match last weekend, but a repeat result was in jeopardy when Chris Henry went over for the only try of the first period to give the visitors an 8-6 half-time lead.
The sides then traded penalties after the break before van der Merwe crashed over on the wing and Russell was perfect from the tee to send the hosts into a second consecutive final.
Ulster, seeking a place in the final at their home stadium, boasted 304 Test caps in their starting XV and that experience showed from the off as Glasgow were pinged in front of the posts with less than a minute played – Ruan Pienaar giving the visitors a 3-0 advantage.
Russell did level proceedings with a three-pointer soon after, before Stuart Hogg gave the Warriors the lead with another penalty from just inside his own half, but it was the Irish side largely on top.
With Pienaar controlling the play from scrum-half, their territorial advantage was eventually rewarded with 18 minutes gone.
After 13 phases of play, the South African No.9 worked the ball wide to Louis Ludik who drew Nikola Matawalu in off his wing before slipping the ball to Henry – the flanker cantering in for his second GUINNESS PRO12 try of the season.
Pienaar couldn’t add the touchline conversion but his side, making their third semi-final appearance in as many seasons, continued to press, probing away at a well-marshalled Warriors defence.
And their dominance was almost converted into more points on the stroke of half-time as they set up camp in the home 22, only to be held up narrowly short of the line.
Twelve months ago, Gregor Townsend’s troops beat another Irish side, Munster, by a single point at the semi-final stage in a similarly brutal and hard-hitting encounter.
That experience seemed to stand them in good stead after the break as they sought to overturn the two-point deficit – an early Matawalu break from inside his own 22 symptomatic of their increasing intent.
Yet it was Ulster who notched the first points of the second period as Pienaar slotted his second penalty of the game from the right-hand side.
With the prospect of becoming the first team in league history to lose a home semi-final hanging over them, the hosts responded.
Matawalu was narrowly beaten to the ball following a deft grubber kick through but Russell soon made the score 9-11 with a penalty from in front of the sticks.
The accuracy and precision of the first half began to fade as the tension mounted and Pienaar took advantage in the 66th minute with a long-range three-pointer.
As the clock began to tick down, Glasgow continuously pounded away at a resilient Ulster defence and with five minutes left they finally got the breakthrough they craved.
After working the ball from one side to the other, Russell’s long, looping pass found van der Merwe who barrelled his way over the line to send a sold-out Scotstoun into raptures.
Despite being almost tight to the right-hand touchline, Russell held his nerve to nail the pivotal conversion and give the home side a 16-14 lead.
Hogg missed a long-range penalty as the clock seeped into the red but Ulster couldn’t go the length of the pitch meaning it was ultimately Glasgow’s night.