Bonus-point Ulster complete impressive double over Scarlets
Champions Cup quarter-final place now a real prospect for Dan McFarland’s side
Jacob Stockdale crosses to score for Ulster against the Scarlets. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ulster 30 Scarlets 15
Ulster duly completed a ten-point haul against last season’s semi-finalists from these pivotal double-headers and so joined Racing on 14 points in Pool 3.
With Racing at home and Leicester away in January, they have given themselves a real shot at reaching the knock-out stages for the first time in five seasons.
This would have seemed unthinkable at the start of the season and unlikely just over a week ago, but by the end of the night, it seemed entirely plausible, such have the strides Ulster have taken under Dan McFarland and such has been the Scarlets’ fall.
They struggled to turn wind and rain assisted first-half supremacy into a sizeable lead, but despite the Scarlets briefly drawing level after the rain abated early in the second-half, Ulster responded with a three-try, 20 blitz in 18 minutes. Job done.
Initially paying a bit too freely, they earned the right to go wide through their maul and the direct hard carrying of Marcell Coetzee, Jordi Murphy, Stuart McCloskey and co.
Well led by Rory Best, working off solid set-pieces, Ulster won the collisions, as their carriers repeatedly broke tackles, and then found the space out wide for Jacob Stockdale, Will Addison and co to stretch the Scarlets.
The visitors brought plenty of line-speed, effectively scoring their try off this, but little else and were also quite narrow in defence. The increasingly influential Billy Burns repeatedly exposed this frailty with some deft crossfield kicks; more kick passes really. The Scarlets’ back three were also regularly found wanting in the air.
For Ulster’s biggest game of the season so far, the most disappointing aspect of the night was the turn-out, with plenty of empty seats and space on the terraces as well. This was all the more surprising given last week’s performance and result. Nonetheless, the crowd enjoyed themselves and went off into the night happily.
Stockdale quickly had the crowd enthused with an early burst, and after good carries by Marty Moore and Rory Best, any of a trio of Scarlets’ forwards could have been penalised for going off their feet as John Cooney opened the scoring.
With Billy Burns playing flat to the line as he does, at times Ulster were too risky for their own good before Best and the pack went to their maul. Twice they then went to the corner, and although Henry Speight, who had a big game in his last European appearance, nearly finished off a grubber by Addison with one advantage play, the pressure eventually led to Wyn Jones being binned for playing the ball on the deck.
Ulster again turned the screw off a scrum with some direct, hard carrying by Coetzee, Murphy and Best which ended with Iain Henderson, helped by Best and Murphy, burrowing over.
However, a risky chip by Burns led to a turnover and the half ended with Rhys Patchell making it 10-3 at half-time after Moore was harshly pinged for hands on the deck.
The game was then briefly turned on its head within nine minutes of the restart. A Louis Ludik counter and a carry by McCloskey, when he possibly should have offloaded to Cooney, off a Burns crosskick had Ulster knocking on the door, but instead Gareth Davies picked off Cooney’s pass, ran 50 metres and cleverly crosskicked infield. The chasing Steff Evans and Speight both missed the ball but Jonathan Davies, following up, scored and Patchell’s conversion levelled matters.
With Burns pulling the strings, Ulster’s response was superb. First Best pulled the ball back to him, the outhalf’s long left to right pass enabled Ludik to give Adddison a run up the right touchline, and then going left Burns crosskicked for Stockdale to gather ahead of Tom Prydie and beat Johnny McNicholl for yet another fine finish.
Stockdale soon departed, injured, to be replaced by Darren Cave, with Addison shifting to fullback and Ludik to the wing. Importantly, Cooney’s penalty made it a two-score game.
When Burns exposed the narrowness of the Scarlets’ defence again with a cross kick in behind Prydie, Ludik gathered and Addison started the next procession of carries. Coetzee and McCloskey again made hard yards before Henderson was driven over again, this time by McCloskey and Speight.
Ulster had 17 minutes to obtain a bonus point. They only needed four. From another strong lineout maul, Best charged for the line and though held up short, presented the ball for Cooney to pick up and score.
A Tom Prydie try at the death from Dan Jones’ grubber was scant consolation for him or the Scarlets. Ulster were clear winners on the night.
Scoring sequence: 9 mins Cooney pen 3-0; 33 mins Henderson try, Cooney con 10-0; 39 mins Patchell pen 10-3; (half-time 10-3); 49 mins Davies try, Patchell con 10-10; 51 mins Stockdale try 15-10; 58 mins Cooney pen 18-10; 63 mins Henderson try, Cooney con 25-10; 67 mins Cooney try 30-10; 78 mins Prydie try 30-15.
Ulster: Louis Ludik; Henry Speight, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rory Best (capt), Marty Moore, Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee. Replacements: Darren Cave for Stockdale (58 mins), Kyle McCall for O’Sullivan (64 mins), Rob Herring for Best, Tom O’Toole for Moore, Nick Timoney for Coetzee, Johnny McPhillips for Burns (all 69 mins), Matthew Rea for Treadwell (77 mins), Not used - Dave Shanahan.
Scarlets: Johnny McNicholl; Tom Prydie, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans; Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens (capt), Samson Lee, Jake Ball, David Bulbring, Lewis Rawlins, Will Boyde, Uzair Cassiem. Replacements: Phil Price for Rawlins (29-39 mins) and for Jones (68 mins), Ryan Elias for Owens (53 mins), Dan Jones for McNicholl (53 mins), Werner Kruger for Lee, Paul Asquith for J Davies (both 60 mins), Sam Hidalgo-Clyne for G Davies (64 mins), Tom Price for Bullbring, Josh Helps for Rawlins (both 77 mins).
Sinbinned - W Jones (29-39 mins).
Referee: Luke Pearce (Eng)