There was real despair in the faces and voices of the homeward-bound Ulster supporters as they made their exit from Ravenhill on Saturday night.
That was hardly surprising; Cardiff’s completion of a home-and-away back-to-back double has cast Ulster adrift at the wrong end of the table and left them in real danger of failing to match last season’s vital statistics.
In 2008/09 they were eighth of the 10 having registered seven wins en route to 36 points. Currently they have five wins and 25 points.
Progress? Not in tangible terms. Put bluntly, their form since January has not been good enough.
And yet there were plus points to Ulster’s latest showing, hence the frustration. There were some good individual performances. The line-out was impressive, the scrum was as reasonable as it could be in the current climate whereby referees appear to punish sides on a turn-about basis and the penalty count was down with only eight conceded on this occasion, albeit that Leigh Halfpenny nailed four of those.
Ulster opened like a side intent on flushing all of the previous weeks’ toxins out of their system and the early signs were highly promising. Their kick and chase game was good, as was their tackling, Stephen Ferris having put down a marker by hitting fellow-Lion Jamie Roberts with an awesome tackle to earn Ulster a penalty.
The passage which led to Niall O’Connor giving his side an eighth minute lead from a simple penalty under the posts was an excellent example of forwards and backs playing as one in progressing and recycling at speed.
The penalty came from a twice-collapsed five-metre scrum, that being referee Andy MacPherson’s decision when he might well have awarded a try under the crossbar. Certainly David Pollock appeared to have applied the finish to an impressive period of pressure but the Scottish official felt unable to award it in that his own positioning had impeded a defender. It was a big call, for had the try been awarded that would have made it 7-0 rather than 3-0 and who knows what might then have happened?
What we do know, however, is that with Ulster fully committed to attack in pursuit of further points to underline their supremacy at that stage, they were totally gutted when man of the match Casey Laulala intercepted an O’Connor pass and ran 70 metres to score under the War Memorial End posts.
Ceri Sweeney converted, Halfpenny promptly kicked a dream of a penalty and rather than leading 7-0, Ulster found themselves trailing 10-3 at the end of an intriguing first quarter. In truth they never really recovered.
A second Halfpenny penalty opened up a 10-point differential, although O’Connor quickly replied in kind following another very good Ulster passage with blood replacement Ian Whitten — on for the impressive Paddy Wallace — Rory Best, Ryan Caldwell and Isaac Boss to the fore.
But Ulster then suffered a further crushing blow when Cardiff scored a second converted try, with Xavier Rush going through unmolested following a break by fellow-All Black Laulala and although O’Connor and Halfpenny traded penalties before the break the 23-9 interval deficit was too much to repair.
The performance of Ravenhill-destined Rush was a plus for Ulster followers in dire need of crumbs of comfort.
O’Connor was on target with a fourth penalty before Ferris drove his way through via the right touchline for a great try which closed the gap to just six points at 23-17.
But there their resistance ended. Another Halfpenny penalty and a converted try by back three replacement Dafydd Hewitt reopened the chasm, rendering Chris Henry’s late touchdown — well converted by Ian Humphreys — irrelevant.
ULSTER: Danielli, Trimble, Cave, Wallace, Nagusa, O’Connor, Boss, Fitzpatrick, Best, Botha, O’Donoghue, Caldwell, Ferris, Pollock, Henry. Replacements: Kyriacou, Young, Tuohy, Diack, Marshall, Humphreys, Whitten.
CARDIFF BLUES: Czekaj, Halfpenny, Laulala, Roberts, James, Sweeney, Rees, Jenkins, Rhys Thomas, Filise, Jones, Tito, Molitika , Warburton, Rush. Replacements: Williams, Andrews, Pretorius, Martyn Williams, Allinson, Flanagan, Hewitt.
Referee: Andy MacPherson (Scotland).