Ulster do the hard work early to break Scarlets
Visitng Welshmen second-best all over the pitch as table-toppers book league final berth
Ulster’s Robbie Diack (centre) celebrates scoring against Scarlets. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho
Ulster 27 Scarlets 18: Ulster ensured an RDS final, with an even split of 9,000 tickets each if it is to be Leinster opposing them next Saturday, by predictably putting the Scarlets to the sword.
The latter were up for a fight, but a three-try, 22-point salvo after the first quarter took the sting out of the visitors and league form was rubberstamped as Ulster won, in truth, pulling up.
The night, and Ulster’s performance was a fitting farewell to Ravenhill for the season and to the ground’s grandstand, which opened on 12th January 1924.
Demolition work will begin on the stand next week as part of the ongoing £14.7 million redevelopment of the ground. Judging by the scale of the two stands at either end, it’s going to be a helluva stadium when it’s finished.
Andrew Trimble, though he has scored a dozen tries this season, swapped wings with Tommy Bowe but to no avail, as Bowe, the League’s all-time leading tryscorer, scored his 51st try of the competition.
Much of the constant denominators applied. Collectively, Ulster’s work-rate on and off the ball was inestimably better, as was their discipline, focus and work at the breakdown, where the Scarlets often worked in not so splendid isolation.
Rory Best, not surprisingly, took out his Lions’ frustration on the Scarlets with a huge game, Johan Muller ruled the air, while Chris Henry (superb in the tackle) and Robbie Diack were indomitable. The cool Ruan Pienaar oozed control and his alliance with Paddy Jackson again gave the lie to the conventional wisdom south of the border that the Ulster backs work better with a Paul Marshall-Pienaar axis.
Crowd favourite Nick Williams was at his barnstorming best, and there was grunt to go with the flash. Thunderous hits were intermingled with big, paw-like carries and once, while being held static around the ankles swatted away Ken Owens like a showboating prize fighter. The unfortunate Scarlets’ hooker had earlier been emptied by Williams and would later be stretchered off.
Once again we were left mystified as to how some of Scarlets’ Welsh title winners and Lions can become a pale shadow of themselves for their regions _ and in this instance it can’t be the colour of the jerseys. Jonathan Davies’ sometimes poor passing was again exposed while George North was beaten with embarrassing ease by Bowe for the latter’s try.
Rhys Priestland, who was a hot favourite to accompany Jonny Sexton on the Lions tour until rupturing his Achilles tendon last December, was named to make his first start since then after two appearances off the bench but the same Achilles stiffened up in the warm-up.
His replacement, Owen Williams, opened the scoring in the fourth minute, although the break-out from inside their own 22 was down to a fairly blatant, if undetected, forward pass by Jonathan Davies. In any event, that was as good as it got for the visitors.
Pienaar soon drew the sides level before the temperatures cranked up after Owen Williams’s second penalty hit the upright. A searing break up the middle by Jared Payne off turnover ball, leaving Josh Turnbull in his slipstream, was the catalyst, before his touchdown off a Pienaar crosskick was rendered immaterial by a preceding punch-up. This resulted in yellow cards for Trimble, the instigator with a push-off that was interpreted as a punch, and Scarlets’ fullback Liam Williams, for a retaliatory flurry of punches.
In their absence, Ulster struck. An initial attacking lineout maul having been held up, Ulster went to the corner again as Best found Johann Muller in the middle. Williams reached out for the line, but with his bear like paws still contorted himself to present the ball, and Best showed good footwork for his carry, before Pienaar reverted to the blind side where Bowe easily stepped inside North.
Pienaar converted from the touchline and as the Scarlets conceded a torrent of penalties, Ulster went to the corner again. Rob Herring, on temporarily for Best, located Muller and with the Scarlets’ forwards on the deck or fanning out. Ulster drove for the line for Robbie Diack to score.
Pienaar’s touchline conversion hit the post, but he closed out the half for an 18-3 lead after a potent Ulster scrum - created by Henry and Williams combining for a choke tackle - that, as was the case with the previous try, was unaffected by Callum Black temporarily replacing Tom Court.
The Scarlets weren’t helped by another couple of enforced changes in their backline, and one of them resulted in Aled Thomas, on for Liam Williams at fullback, and captain Rob McCusker colliding under Pienaar’s box kick. Andrew Trimble pounced and although Jonathan Davies hauled down Best, Darren Cave carried strongly off a switch with Trimble from the ensuing scrum and Court picked and drove over for the try.
A couple of lengthy stoppages for Owens and Gareth Earle and a welter of replacements took the energy out of the game and the crowd, and it wasn’t entirely surprising when Gareth Davies showed a turn of foot and good footwork to dance through a flimsy Ulster line for a try which revived the visitors.
Pienaar tagged on an insurance three-pointer and a late try by Sione Timani scarcely even constituted a consolation.
Scoring sequence: 4 mins O Williams pen 0-3; 6 mins Pienaar pen 3-3; 25 mins Bowe try, Pienaar con 10-3; 34 mins Diack try 15-3; 40 mins Pienaar pen 18-3; (half-time 18-3); 44 mins Court try, Pienaar con 25-3; 61 mins G Davies try, O Williams con 25-10; 64 mins Pienaar pen 28-10; 79 mins Timani try, O Williams con 28-17.
Ulster: J Payne, A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, T Bowe, P Jackson, R Pienaar; (1-8) T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (C), D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams; Replacements _ R Herring for Best (25-35 and 73 mins), C Black for Court (38-41 and 68 mins), R Lutton for Fitzpatrick (56 mins), P Marshall for Jackson (59 mins), I Henderson for Tuohy, P Nelson for Olding (both 67 mins), M McComish for Williams (69 mins), M Allen for Trimble. Sinbinned _ Trimble (20-30 mins).
Scarlets: L Williams, G North, J Davies, S Williams, A Fenby, O Williams, A Davies; P John, K Owens, S Lee, G Earle, J Synman, A Shingler, J Turnbull, R McCusker (capt). Replacements _ G Owen for S Williams (20 mins), A Thomas for L Williams (half-time), G Davies for A Davies (44 mins), S Timani for Shingler (45 mins), E Phillips for Owens (47 mins), J Ball for Earle (49 mins), J Adriannse for Lee (56 mins), R Jones for John (59 mins). Sinbinned _ L Williams (20-30 mins).
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).