Ulster suffered a late European heartbreak at Ravenhill, just missing out on the Champions Cup quarter-finals.
Defending champions Toulouse will instead take their place in the last eight after their 30-23 win, the result of an Antoine Dupont goal in the 75th minute, saw them move up a 50-49 aggregate score.
After putting a six-point lead in the game thanks to last week’s win in the south of France, Dan McFarland’s side looked for a long time as enough to welcome Ireland to rivals Munster back here next month.
But with substitute propman Tom O’Toole red in the 65th minute, they would come agonizingly short. How big is Romain Ntamack’s 79th minute try a week ago now?
Ntamack was back at the top in the second leg too, creating a try and scoring another goal, while reigning World Player of the Year Dupont delivered the last-second heroics.
Given such star power, if Ulster were to progress it should always be through the strength of their collective but losing to the odd point in 99 against the defending champions will be of little consolation, especially after such a remarkable win in the away leg.
After only 90 seconds, the lead from this game was halved. France international Anthony Jelonch got into the poaching and Duane Vermeulen was pinged for holding on. Thomas Ramos, the guests’ sure-footed full-back, made no mistakes from the tee.
And the resulting restart made Ulster’s task all the more difficult. Robert Baloucoune tried to brake but was unable to stop in time to avoid an aerial collision with Jelonch and the hero of last week’s first leg was rightly sent into the sin trap.
The northern province, however, would not be down for a man. The home crowd was louder than they had been in many games and they howled as Dimitri Delibe’s tackle against Ethan McIlroy was shown on the big screen and after just five minutes of play both sides had a man in the bin.
It was the hosts who made the best of the situation. When Toulouse missed a free-kick on the line-out, Billy Burns lifted a Test up and down to the sky while Ulster felt blood from the resulting knock-on.
Mike Lowry sent a probing cultivator through and as Toulouse tried to quickly take out the line it was the diminutive full-back who pushed Antoine Dupont into a knock-on five yards from his own line.
Rather than settle for the scrum, Ulster played on putting the ball into plenty of space for James Hume. The center pulled the limping Lebel off his wing before dumping to McIlory for the score.
Ramos added another penalty before Baloucoune returned to the pitch, although Cooney would quickly equalize the try with three points of his own when Toulouse played the ball from an offside position amid further confusion.
After a quarter of play, Ulster’s lead on both legs was ten.
The European champions can flip a game like a light switch, however, and once again it was the elusive Romain Ntamack who did the damage.
The man whose late attempt a week ago changed the complexion of this tie slid through the middle of the park and broke the line again. With his accomplice Dupont on his shoulder, Ramos raced under the post after a quick substitution.
Five minutes later, Ulster’s lead was gone, this time Ntamack needed no support. Marcus Rea was under pressure in the Maul but did well to take his death to Rob Herring. Ntamack spotted the movement, however, and fired into John Cooney’s fast lane, going all the way from the interception.
If there was a feeling that Ulster would do well to regroup at half-time, it was not shared by the players.
A hard-earned scrum penalty was sent into the corner and when Toulouse injured the Maul that followed, Cooney barked for the ball. The number ten’s cross, which quickly found his half-back partner Burns, was well timed but still required a pretty great finish by McIlroy, the winger jumping, collecting one hand over Ramos and knocking it all down in one move.
Cooney’s change of sides ensured Ulster would reach the round three down in the game but lead by the same margin in the tie.
Cooney again made no mistake from the tee with half an hour to go when Peato Mauvaka fell off an Andy Warwick carry.
Toulouse threw it all at Ulster, with a super envelope from Duane Vermeulen quashing a threatening attack.
Billy Burns was due to head out for a HIA just before the hour mark and with Lowry switching to ten, Ulster’s hearts were in their mouths when their new out-half collided with Ramos in the air.
After a protracted decision, the officiating team decided he was capable of fighting for the ball. Penny for Ugo Mola’s thoughts after the events of a week ago.
Looking for another steal, Vermeulen was pinged under his own post this time, with Ramos pushing his side forward again on the night. If Toulouse thought Ulster had eluded a Red before, he wouldn’t be able to dodge the ball a second time, as backup propsman Tom O’Toole would spend just three minutes on the field before a high hit on Jelonch would sack him.
Crucially, Ulster would score next, an injury from Toulouse that allowed Cooney’s fifth kick of the night to leave the visitors who need a converted result to progress.
It would arrive five minutes before the end. Ulster appeared to have been pardoned when a Toulouse line-up went haywire, but Dupont found just enough space in their undermanned defense, attacking from the gap to slip to the side of the posts and Ramos with the simplest of conversions to leave.
Ulster needed a score, any score, and wouldn’t sniff again.
Goalscorers – Toulouse: Ramos try, 3 pins, 3 cheats; Dupont experiment; try ntamack. Ulster: McIlroy 2 attempts; Cooney 3 pins, 2 con.
Ulster: M Lowry; Baloucoune R, Hume J, McCloskey S, McIlroy E; B. Burns, J. Cooney; A Warwick, R Hering, M Moore; A O’Connor, I Henderson (Captain); M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. Substitute: K Treadwell (for O’Connor, 51), J Murphy (for Rea, 53), R Lyttle (for Burns, 58), T O’Toole (for Moore, 62), E O’Sullivan (for Warwick, 62) , M Moore (for Lyttle, 69), A O’Connor (for Treadwell, 76). Not used: B. Roberts, N. Doak, L. Marshall.
Toulouse: T Ramos; Delibes D, Nanai-Williams T, Ahki P, Lebel M; Ntamack R, Dupont A: Neti R, Mauvaka P, Faumuina C; Rory Arnold, Richie Arnold; R Elstadt, A Jelonch, S Tolofua. Substitute: L Tauzin (for Lebel, 11), D Aldegheri (for Faumuina, 50), T Flament (for Tolofua, 53), E Meafou (for Richie Arnold, 53), D Ainuu (for Neti, 62), A Miquel (for Rory Arnlod, 63), B. Germain, (for Nanai-Williams, 73). Not used: G Cramont
Referee: M Carley (England).
Player of the Game: A Jelonch.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/champions-cup/late-try-spells-heartbreak-for-14-man-ulster-in-heineken-cup-aggregate-defeat-to-toulouse-41560194.html The late try spells heartbreak for the 14-man Ulster in the Heineken Cup aggregate loss to Toulouse