Ulster time late run to claim dramatic win on emotional night
Tributes paid on fifth anniversary of Nevin Spence’s death before kick-off
Ulster’s Andrew Trimble congratulates try scorer John Andrew during the Guinness Pro 14 game against the Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ulster 27 Scarlets 20
It seemed appropriate on the night that was in it that Ulster surged their way late on to secure a dramatic triumph by halting the Scarlets’ impressive winning run which stretched back to last season.
Indeed, the result – thanks to Edinburgh losing to Treviso – took Ulster to the top of Conference B ahead of Saturday’s Leinster game. It was no mean feat for considering they went into the game without the injured Marcell Coetzee, Charles Piutau and Jean Deysel, never mind their Lions trio who are still not available, though Rory Best now has an injured hamstring.
The game only really came to life in the second half when all four tries in the game were scored – Ulster had led 9-3 at the break – in what was a frenetic finish from which the Scarlets still took a losing bonus point.
Indeed, for Jacob Stockdale and sub John Andrew’s late try, the off-loading work of Stuart McCloskey was critical in breaking the line which somehow again seemed appropriate as he was wearing the number 12 shirt on an evening of high emotion at the Kingspan.
Prior to the game there were tribute’s to Nevin Spence on the fifth anniversary of his tragic death in a farming accident along with his father and brother and Ulster’s players notably warmed up all wearing the number 12 jersey in tribute.
After the minute’s applause followed by a silence just before kick-off, things got under way with the champions showed their intent from the off by putting width on the ball and testing Ulster’s defence which had been notably narrow at times in their first two games.
The first points, though, for a Scarlets side with all three Lions on board fell to Leigh Halfpenny’s boot after some sloppy Ulster work from Luke Marshall at the breakdown.
This was evened out by John Cooney’s first effort on 18 minutes after the Scarlets had infringed at a lineout.
The Scarlets were, admittedly, a tad ambitious in their desire to give the ball air and, indeed, this helped Ulster who had the upper hand in the first half and, if they had been more accurate would have collected a couple of tries.
Indeed, Christian Leali’ifano’s’ delightful cross-kick put Jacob Stockdale in space but the home side couldn’t finish and then a driving maul was held up just on the half hour just after Tadhg Beirne had sacked Cooney after coming through an initial attempt to maul.
Still, two visits into Scarlets’ territory brought quick-fire penalties from Cooney – though the home side ought to have scored a try off one of their driving mauls – which put the home side 9-3 up at the break.
Ulster started the second half as they had left things off in the first 40 minutes though Leali’ifano was floored late by Hadleigh Parkes and then was the victim of a great poach by Beirne as he surged for the line minutes later.
Still, Ulster kept the scoreboard ticking along with Cooney’s fourth strike, from long range, coming on 52 minutes after a late tackle. It was the Scarlets who hit back next, four minutes later, with Halfpenny landing a close-range penalty after McCloskey had strayed offside.
The Scarlets then broke out of their half on a rare sortie which saw Rhys Patchell put Johnny McNicholl through to dot down on 61 minutes and Halfpenny’s conversion put them ahead for the first time since early in the first half.
Ulster quickly hit back though with Sean Reidy bursting through and putting Stockdale in the corner though Cooney failed to add the difficult extras.
But, with the game really opening up, Steff Evans supplied sub Jonathan Davies with a great score worked down Ulster’s left flank. Halfpenny converted and the Scarlets led 20-17.
With Cooney taken off, Leali’ifano levelled the scores with a penalty on 72 minutes. Then with four minutes remaining a marvellous Tommy Bowe break saw Luke Marshall spin out a long pass for sub John Andrew to gallop over and Leali’ifano added the conversion.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: L Halfpenny pen, 0-3; 18: J Cooney pen, 3-3; 31: J Cooney pen, 6-3; 33: J Cooney pen, 9-3; Half-time 9-3; 52: J Cooney pen, 12-3; 57: L Halfpenny pen, 12-6; 61: J McNicholl try, 12-11; L Halfpenny con, 12-13; 63: J Stockdale try, 17-13; 68: J Davies try, 17-18; L Halfpenny con, 17-20; 73: C Leali’ifano pen, 20-20; 76: J Andrew try, 25-20; C Leali’ifano con, 27-20.
ULSTER: L Ludik; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst; K Treadwell, A O’Connor; M Rea, C Henry (capt), S Reidy.
Replacements: T Bowe for McCloskey (17-25mins), T Bowe for Ludik (51 mins); J Andrew for Herring (57 mins), R Diack for Treadwell (58 mins), C Ross for Henry (66 mins), P Marshall for Cooney (69 mins), R Ah You for Herbst( 72 mins), P Nelson for Stockdale (72 mins). Unused sub: A Warwick.
SCARLETS: L Halfpenny; J McNicholl, H Parkes, S Williams, S Evans; R Patchell, G Davies; R Evans, K Owens (capt), S Lee; J Ball, T Beirne; A Shingler, W Boyde, J Barclay.
Replacements: J Davies for S Williams (52 mins), D Bulbring for Ball (52 mins), J Evans for G Davies (53 mins), W Kruger for Lee (58 mins), R Elias for R Evans (62 mins).