Coetzee saves Ulster's blushes
MATCH REPORT: Ulster survived a spirited Benetton fightback to kick off their 2020/21 PRO14 season with a bonus-point victory in a high-scoring thriller in Belfast.
The 600 spectators inside the Kingspan Stadium were treated to a pulsating contest which saw both sides commit to playing fast and flowing rugby.
Six tries were shared in a helter-skelter first half which ended level as Benetton recovered from falling 14-0 and 21-7 down.
The Italians went ahead early in the second period but tries from Marcell Coetzee and Adam McBurney ensured last season’s PRO14 finalists pulled clear to claim a 35-24 success.
The first half was played at a blistering pace throughout and it was the hosts who drew first blood after a moment of magic from John Cooney in the ninth minute.
Ulster’s scrumhalf weighted his grubber kick perfectly with the outside of his boot and centre James Hume went under the posts to score the opening try – just as he had in September’s Final.
Cooney converted before contributing another assist just three minutes later, providing the final pass to give the impressive Stewart Moore a simple run in for a try on his first senior start for Ulster.
At 14-0 down inside quarter of an hour it looked as though it could be a long night for Benetton but the visitors roared back and set up camp inside the Ulster half.
Their pressure paid off when Federico Ruzza barrelled over from five metres out and Paolo Garbisi added the extras to halve the deficit.
Ulster went straight back on the attack and restored their two-try cushion when Michael Lowry dotted down in the left-hand corner for another score set up by Cooney, who nailed his conversion from the touchline.
With eight minutes to play in the first period, Jacob Stockdale was sin-binned for a high tackle on Dewaldt Duvenage and Benetton took full advantage of their extra man.
Powerful breaks from Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara laid the platform for both Benetton’s late first half tries, with Garbisi going over on 33 minutes and Braam Steyn stretching out a left hand to follow suit five minutes later.
Both were converted by Garbisi to ensure a hugely entertaining first half ended all square at 21-21 and the young fly-half slotted a penalty early in the second to put Benetton in front for the first time.
Their lead lasted just a matter of minutes, however, as Coetzee lunged over to secure Ulster’s bonus point and put the hosts back in the ascendancy.
Ulster then had to dig in for a spell as Benetton again put together some flowing moves but the cutting edge of the first half was lacking.
Dan McFarland’s side then stepped up the intensity in the closing stages and took advantage of a tiring visiting outfit to settle the outcome through replacement McBurney, who powered over off the back of a rolling maul.
Benetton will feel hard done by to leave Belfast with nothing after a spirited display but they will return to Italy with plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the season ahead.
Tries: Hume, Moore, Lowry, Coetzee, McBurney
Cons: Cooney 4, Johnston
Tries: Ruzza, Garbisi, Steyn
Cons: Garbisi 3
Ulster: 15 Jacob Stockdale, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 James Hume, 12 Stewart Moore, 11 Rob Lyttle, 10 Michael Lowry, 9 John Cooney, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Matthew Rea, 5 Iain Henderson (captain), 4 Sam Carter, 3 Marty Moore, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Adam McBurney, 17 Eric O’Sullivan, 18 Gareth Milasinovich, 19 David O’Connor, 20 David McCann, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 Bill Johnston, 23 Louis Ludik.
Benetton: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Ratuva Tavuyara, 13 Ignacio Brex, 12 Marco Zanon, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage (captain), 8 Toa Halafihi, 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Marco Lazzaroni, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Hame Faiva, 1 Cherif Traore.
Replacements: 16 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Simone Ferrari, 19 Niccolò Cannone, 20 Eli Snyman, 21 Giovanni Pettinelli, 22 Callum Braley, 23 Edoardo Padovani.
Referee: Adam Jones
Assistant referees: Sean Gallagher, Robert O’Sullivan
TMO: Brian MacNeice