|Guinness Pro14: Ulster v Cheetahs
|Ulster: (10) 20
|Try: O’Toole, Baloucoune Cons: Johnston (2) Pens: Johnston (2)
|Cheetahs: (3) 10
|Try: Blommetjies Con: Pienaar Pen: Pienaar
Ulster returned to winning ways in the Pro14 with a 20-10 success over Ruan Pienaar’s Cheetahs at Kingspan Stadium.
Tom O’Toole powered over for an early try for the hosts and Robert Baloucoune touched down shortly after the restart from Bill Johnston’s cross-field kick.
Fly-half Johnston added 10 points from the kicking tee in a man of the match performance.
Clayton Blommetjies crossed for the visitors to set up a tense finale but Ulster held on for a crucial win.
Despite the ice-cold conditions in Belfast, both sides tried playing expansive rugby from the off – however Ulster suffered an early blow when prop Marty Moore was forced off and replaced by Tom O’Toole.
Michael Lowry and James Hume, who were both making their returns from injury, pressed towards the Cheetahs line and O’Toole eventually barged his way under the posts with eight minutes on the clock.
The Cheetahs piled on the pressure after the prop’s try, winning a series of penalties in the home 22 before Johnston’s excellent clearance kick after a fluffed line out offered Ulster some much-needed relief.
As much as both sides pummelled each other’s defences, there was little danger of the Cheetahs repeating October’s 63-26 win and it took until 35 minutes before Johnston extended Ulster’s lead after returning hero Pienaar caught Hume with a high tackle.
However Pienaar, who scored over 800 points for Ulster before leaving in 2017, redeemed himself with a well-struck penalty of his own two minutes later, to rapturous applause in front of the vocal Ulster support.
Ulster came flying out of the traps after the restart and were camped in the Cheetahs’ 22, and referee Mike Adamson sent hooker Wilmar Arnoldi to the bin after numerous penalty infringements by the visitors.
Dan McFarland’s men capitalised when Johnston’s pinpoint kick was collected on the wing by Baloucoune, who made the most of the opportunity and crossed unchallenged for Ulster’s second try on 45 minutes.
Johnston split the posts with his second penalty of the game on the hour mark to nudge Ulster further ahead as McFarland began to freshen up his pack with several replacements.
However despite looking comfortable, the hosts were given a scare when Cheetahs full-back Blommetjies crossed with 14 minutes to play after the visitors broke away when lock Aintu Manjezi intercepted Jonny Stewart’s pass.
With their backs against the wall and momentum firmly with the Cheetahs, man of the match Johnston’s excellent kick into the visiting 22 lifted pressure off the young Ulster side once more.
From there, the half lulled into the similar pattern that hampered the first, however the loudest cheer of the evening was reserved for Pienaar, who was replaced with two minutes remaining to a standing ovation.
Johnston tried to replicate his cross-field effort for replacement Craig Gilroy with the clock in the red, but the winger could only knock on when grasping for the ball before Adamson blew for full time.
Ulster remain second in Conference A after the win, two spots ahead of Cheetahs, and extend their buffer over the South African side to 10 points.
Ulster: M Lowry, R Baloucoune, L Marshall, J Hume, L Ludik, B Johnston, D Shanahan; E O’Sullivan, A McBurney, M Moore, A O’Connor (capt), K Treadwell, N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Replacements :J Andrew, A Warwick, T O’Toole, D O’Connor, S Reidy, J Stewart, S Moore, C Gilroy.
Cheetahs: C Blommetjies, R Smith, W Small-Smith, BJ van Rensburg, C Barry, T Schoeman, R Pienaar (capt); B Venter, W Arnold, L de Bruin, S Manjezi, W Steenkamp, C Massyn, J Pokomela, J Wiese.
Replacements: J Dweba, C Marais, As Coetzee, JP du Preez, A Davis, T Meyer, L Fouche. Chris Smit.
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU) Asst: George CLancy (IRFU), Sam Grove-White (SRU)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (SRU)
Article courtesy of BBC Sport