Ulster 19 Glasgow 17: Ulster scrapped and scraped their way to a hard-earned victory last night, with newcomer Ruan Pienaar stealing the show by scoring all of their points.
It was to have been centurion Rory Best’s night, this being the occasion of his 100th cap. But it was Pienaar, making his Ulster debut, who grabbed the limelight.
Ravenhill has been a happy hunting ground for the Scots in recent times with three of their four previous visits having yielded victory. Against that they flew into Belfast having suffered three successive Magners League defeats, the last two of those at the hands of Connacht and Munster.
Ulster were aiming to complete a hat-trick of wins by Irish provinces against Glasgow in the opening rounds of the 2010/11 series.
A mere two minutes into the contest Ulster’s new Springbok, Pienaar, announced his arrival by pointing to the posts when the hosts were awarded a penalty a metre inside their own half. With Ravenhill’s 7,822 patrons totally hushed the South African’s kick had the distance, but not quite the direction, and the ball sailed wide.
Even so the home supporters applauded loudly, leading one to wonder how they might react when he actually scored. We soon had the answer.
Before that, however, Glasgow threatened to spoil the party. First Duncan Weir landed a 10th minute penalty. Worse was to follow for when Andrew Trimble somehow lost the ball from a Weir kick he appeared to have caught, DTH Van Der Merde punished the error by bursting clear to score in the left corner, making it 8-0.
Enter Pienaar once more. If he has been unlucky with his first penalty, that misfortune was more than offset when his second bounced over via an upright.
He was off the mark and five minutes later Ravenhill’s new darling struck again with another penalty.
And the stadium was still buzzing when Pienaar stepped up again, this time applying the finish to more outstanding work by his forwards. Much of the credit for the creation of the opportunity goes to Trimble, who atoned for his earlier error with a kick which earned a line-out close to the Glasgow line. When the ball came back, Pienaar completely fooled the defence by breaking via the narrow side for a fine solo try which he then converted, almost from touch, to make it 13-8.
The half finished with Glasgow nosing ahead, however, with Weir twice punishing infringements to leave the interval score a flattering 14-13 in the guests’ favour.
The Pienaar show resumed with scrum-half restoring Ulster’s lead with a long-range 44th minute penalty that went over via the crossbar, suggesting that somebody was smiling on him in a big way — 16-14 with the Springbok responsible with each of Ulster’s points.
But not to be outdone, the outstanding Weir replied with a quite magnificent penalty from almost 60 metres.
Ulster were growing increasingly frustrated. They just could not establish a rhythm and some of their out of hand kicking was becoming aimless. Time and again it looked like they might do something, but too often the threat came to nothing.
Visiting No 8 Vernon Richie was lucky not to have been carded for blatant obstruction of Trimble, with Glasgow totally escaping punishment when Pienaar miscued his right-of-centre penalty on the 22.
Ulster needed something different and coach Brian McLaughlin responded by withdrawing Niall O’Connor, switching Paddy Wallace to stand-off and introducing Ian Whitten to fill the centre vacancy.
It worked. A perfectly judged Wallace kick to touch deep in the Scots’ 22 set up the passage of play which ultimately led to what proved to be the decisive penalty in the match.
Pienaar converted to give Ulster victory, although he then missed another which went away rather than over off an upright.
The Ulster supporters won’t hold three penalty misses against him, however. They know they have got themselves quite a player.