Ulster’s bonus-point win could come at a cost as injuries mount
Hopes remain alive of reviving European dream after victory over Scarlets in Belfast
Ulster’s Darren Cave scores a try despite the tackle of Scarlets’ Scott Williams during the European Rugby Champions Cup match at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho/Presseye
Ulster 24 Scarlets 9
Ulster delivered the bonus-point victory but the tariff was mighty high in terms of injuries. During the course of a hard-fought contest, they lost Stuart Olding, Stuart McCloskey, Wiehahn Herbst, Nick Williams and Franco van der Merwe to a variety of ailments – none of which looked trivial.
In that context, they demonstrated character to augment the cameos of real quality that pre-empted their four tries, two in each half. The set piece was a mixed bag, the scrum a potent weapon that yielded penalties but Ulster coughed up five lineouts and that might have proved too debilitating to their aspirations on another day.
Matches of this ilk are defined by the forward exchanges and in Roger Wilson, Ulster had the game’s outstanding forward. He was ably supported by Robbie Diack and Rory Best in particular in a powerful effort from the home eight.
The Scarlets’ narrow focus – Rhys Priestland an honourable exception – with the ball suited the home side in some respects and Ulster were certainly far more dangerous behind the scrum, a fact reflected in the fact that three of their four tries came from backs.
Ruan Pienaar had a fine game on his return, Ian Humphreys put aside his kicking aberrations to contribute handsomely in general play, while Darren Cave got through a huge amount of work in midfield. Tommy Bowe oozed class with every touch, while Louis Ludik had a fine game at fullback.
A damp sod and intermittent drizzle and then heavier rain showers placed a premium on accurate passing and choosing carefully when seeking to offload out of the tackle.
Ulster knew that nothing less than a bonus-point victory would suffice and in some respect that shaped the game plan from the outset. There still had to be an integrity to their patterns in terms of building a platform in terms of tying in defenders rather than tossing the ball about.
The home side began in jittery fashion, losing their first lineout, fumbling away a ball or two in their haste to inject a high tempo to proceedings. They conceded a penalty, which Priestland kicked, but gradually they found a rhythm to their endeavour and the Scarlets, under pressure, began to make mistakes.
Unfortunately for the home side they could not capitalise as Humphreys missed a brace of eminently kickable penalties. In fairness to the outhalf, he didn’t let that affect his general play, making a couple of tidy breaks.
From one he was hit late and high with no arms in the tackle by Scarlets openside James Davies, who deservedly received a yellow card for the hit. It was to prove a costly indiscretion for the visitors as they conceded 14 points while a player down.
Ulster’s first try came on 14 minutes, the pivotal moment, a beautifully judged long cut out pass by Humphreys that put Bowe outside the cover and his equally well judged floated inside pass to the supporting Cave, allowed the centre to scamper over.
Humphreys kicked the conversion as he would do again four minutes later. Cave cut a beautiful inside line just inside the Scarlets’ half, stepped out of one tackle and after reaching the visitors’ 22, popped up a delightful offload for the supporting Pienaar.
Scarlets fullback Liam Williams went to grab the ball and intercept but Pienaar proved the strong and he raced clear and under the posts. At 14-3, Ulster had momentum, and looked dangerous every time they got the ball to the outside channels with Bowe, Craig Gilroy and Ludik conspicuously effective in possession.
The one bugbear for the home side was losing four lineouts in the opening 40 minutes, three inside the Scarlets 22. It acted like a safety valve in releasing the pressure for the visitors. Priestland reduced the deficit with a penalty after Ulster were guilty of some lax play and there followed a moment of controversy on 35 minutes.
Upending a player in a tackle and bringing him past horizontal and down on his neck/shoulder area is a red card; there doesn’t appear to be any ambiguity in the law. Liam Williams did that to Ludik and yet referee Luke Pearce after consulting with television match official Trevor Fisher felt the transgression only merited a yellow card.
The only mitigation was that it was done at a low level rather than hoisting him in the air first but he didn’t try and bring the player back down safely: Williams was a lucky boy. Prietsland had a third chance with the placed ball in first-half injury time – Olding went off with a head injury to be replaced by McCloskey – but pushed his long-range effort right and wide.
The Scarlets were narrow in their patterns, looking to take on the home side around the fringes of rucks and mauls. They were facilitated occasionally by Ulster players slipping off tackles.
The home side were sloppy at the start of the second half, once again careless in possession. The only consolation at that point was that the Welsh side’s handling was equally suspect. Ulster lost Franco van der Merwe (clash of heads) and Wiehahn Herbst (leg injury) in the same passage of play, replaced by Alan O’Connor and Declan Fitzpatrick respectively.
The home side were fortunate on 51 minutes when Priestland’s scything 40 metre break into the Ulster 22, ended with a knock-on from his halfback partner Aled Davies. The respite was short lived, O’Connor’s failure to roll away at a ruck allowing Priestland to narrow the gap to 14-9 with a third penalty.
Williams was turned over from a rolling maul after Pienaar’s wonderful 50-metre penalty to the corner but Bowe rescued his side with a thumping tackle on Scott Williams that forced a turnover in the Scarlets 22.
From the ensuing scrum, Pienaar, fed Cave, received the ball back from the centre on a loop around, and his pass to Bowe still required a bit of finishing; the Ireland wing was well up to the job and he forced his way over in the corner.
Humphreys could not manage the touchline conversion but the home side had earned breathing space on the scoreboard; they were one try away from a bonus point to boot with 20 minutes remaining.
Ulster’s injury woes continued losing Nick Williams (leg) and McCloskey (arm) again in the same passage of play on 65 minutes. Clive Ross came on at openside while Michael Allen went to the right wing with Tommy Bowe moving to outside centre and Cave to inside.
The penalty count began to spiral in favour of the home side and Best’s decision to turn down three points and go to the corner had a practical and personal reward when the Ireland hooker dotted down after Ulster’s rolling maul shunted the visitors back over their line. Humphreys’s kicking woes continued with the conversion.
Scarlets chased a bonus point of their own in the last 10 minutes but met with some resolute Ulster defence. Pienaar took a yellow card for the team with a one-handed knock-on as he batted down the ball as the Scarlets attacked in the home side’s 22.
Ulster’s scrum won two penalties at crucial times, while the home side also nicked a couple of lineouts as they finished strongly. The most pertinent aspect after the result is how many of Ulster’s wounded can be patched up in time for next week’s game in west Wales.
Scoring sequence – 3 mins: Priestland penalty, 0-3; 14: Cave try, Humphreys conversion, 7-3; 18: Pienaar try, Humphreys conversion, 14-3; 29: Priestland penalty, 14-6. Half-time: 14-6. 55: Priestland penalty, 14-9; 59: Bowe try, 19-9; 68: Best try, 24-9.
ULSTER: L Ludik; T Bowe, D Cave, S Olding, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), W Herbst; D Tuohy, F Van Der Merwe; R Diack, R Wilson, N Williams.
Replacements: S McCloskey for Olding (35 mins); D Fitzpatrick for Herbst (48 mins); A O’Connor for Van der Merwe (48 mins); C Ross for Williams (65 mins); M Allen for McCloskey (65 mins); R Herring for Best (74 mins); A Warwick for Black (74 mins); P Marshall for Diack (76 mins).
Yellow card: Ruan Pienaar (74 mins).
SCARLETS: L Williams; H Robinson, R King, S Williams (capt), M Tagicakibau; R Priestland, A Davies; R Evans, E Phillips, S Lee; J Ball, J Snyman; A Shingler, J Davies, R Pitman.
Replacements: G Owen for L Williams (61 mins); G Earle for Ball (63 mins); R Jones for Lee (64 mins); R Williams for A Davies (64 mins); K Myhill for Phillips; P John for Evans (both 71 mins).
Yellow cards: James Davies (12 mins); Liam Williams (35 mins).
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)