Friday night at Ravenhill saw the top of the table clash between leaders Ulster and 2nd placed Scarlets. It was perfect conditions for rugby and neither side disappointed as they both came out fully committed to playing expansive rugby.
Both sides were very evenly matched in the first half, yet defences were holding firm and 25 minutes into the game the score was tied 3-3 with an exchange of penalties from the boots of Pienaar and Thomas.
It was a free and open game, both sides looking to run from deep. As the half time mark edged ever closer, Ulster started to press their advantage through the figure of their monster no 8 Nick Williams. It was only an incredible last ditch tackle from Scarlets’ Dan Newton that prevented him running clear for a likely try.
With the Scarlets coming under greater pressure, the penalties started to tell, and the home side entered the break leading 9-3 with the match finely poised.
Despite the Scarlets’ efforts in the first half, Ulster were to show their class in the first 20 minutes of the second half. They blitzed the Scarlets and the gaps started to open up as the visitors’ set piece especially started to wobble.
Diack crossed first for Ulster in a move started by the ever present Nick Williams with Pienaar adding the extras, and extending his sides lead a few minutes later with a penalty to give them a 19-3 lead which was starting to look ominous.
It was Williams who again punished the Scarlets after they were penalised 5m out for engaging to early at a scrum. Williams took a quick tap and go, and from such a short distance out it was nigh on impossible to stop him, and he crashed over to score.
The visitors’ night was set to get worse as their star wing George North had to receive extensive treatment on the pitch for a head and neck injury picked up in a ruck. It was a worrying site to see the young player stretchered off yet thankfully reports from the Scarlets’ medical staff after the match state that it is not a serious injury.
The Scarlets to their credit showed great heart to keep attacking the Ulster defence, determined to keep themselves in the game and they were rewarded as Turnbull managed to expose a gap in the Ulster defence to cross for a well-earned try to go into the last ten minutes of the game trailing 26-10.
It was to be a ten minutes to largely forget for the visitors as Ulster showed their calibre and determination to extend their lead. Some weak Scarlets’ defence contributed to some great lines being run by Ulsters’ attack saw Andrew Trimble cross for a well worked try.
A few minutes later, with the home side gunning for a try bonus point, saw the Scarlets’ scrambling back to defend their line. Fly half Thomas whilst running back to his defensive line, intercepted a pass from an offside position and was duly yellow carded. The referee, Hodges, deemed it to have been an interception that would have prevented a certain try and awarded penalty try.
With the Scarlets reeling, Ulster showed their ruthless streak and scored another try just one minute later through McComb, much to the delight of the rampant home side support. As play edged into the 80th minute, the Scarlets kept fighting right to the end as replacement centre Scott Williams broke through Ulsters’ midfield defence with some sublime footwork to cross for a try, which he converted.
The second half showed just why Ulster are top of the table and have lost just one game in all competitions this season. It also highlighted the issues facing the Scarlets and why they have hit such a poor run of form in recent weeks.
Both sides can take positives from this encounter, and until the inconsistencies of the officiating started to trickle into the game, the first half hour at least was some of the best rugby played in the PRO12 this season so far.
It was a thrilling encounter, especially for Ulster fans, and showcased two sides that battled their utmost right until the end. There is no denying Ulsters’ prowess especially in their forwards, and their second half display is one to be admired as they finished very worthy winners.
Full time score: Ulster 47 – 17 Scarlets
Referee: Leighton Hodges (WRU)
Ulster: (15-9): A D’Arcy, A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar;
(1-8): T Court, R Herring, A Macklin, L Stevenson, D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams;
Replacements (16-23): N Annett, C Black, J Afoa, N McComb, R Wilson, M Heaney, P Wallace, R Andrew
Scarlets:15 Dan Newton 14 George North, 13 Gareth Maule, 12 Jonathan Davies (capt), 11 Kristian Phillips, 10 Aled Thomas, 9 Tavis Knoyle, 1 Phil John, 2 Emyr Phillips, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 4 Sione Timani, 5 Richard Kelly, 6 Josh Turnbull, 7 Johnathan Edwards, 8 Rob McCusker
Replacements: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Deacon Manu, 19 Tomas Vallejos, 20 Craig Price, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Scott Williams, 23 Adam Warren