Wake up call as Scarlet-faced Ulster slump to defeat
Ulster slumped to fourth in the PRO12 table after losing 21-20 to Scarlets at the Kingspan Stadium yesterday afternoon.
Tries from Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall, plus 10 points from the boot of Paddy Jackson, had kept the hosts in a game where the lead changed hands four times but the all-important score did not arrive in the final quarter of an hour and the province tasted their second league defeat at home during the opening months of 2016.
It was a loss that had arguably been on the cards - Ulster had been winning while far from their best in recent weeks - and Les Kiss' men were again loose.
In Roger Wilson's 200th Ulster appearance, Jackson's first game as captain, John Andrew's first start and a debut for Johnny Murphy, Scarlets ensured there would no be celebratory air to the first Sunday game in Belfast in 12 years and scored after four minutes.
The Welsh region moved the ball across the line with a step from Hadleigh Parkes freezing Darren Cave and putting the visiting captain clear. With Stuart Olding left with no choice but to cut off the ball carrier, full-back Michael Collins was given a free run from the 22 to score.
Aled Thomas missed the conversion but Wayne Pivac's men had a deserved lead.
An intentional knock-on by Canadian World Cup star DTH van der Merwe gave the hosts a chance to respond with the penalty sent to the corner but scrum-half Paul Marshall knocked on from the subsequent lineout.
Scarlets went for the corner when Ulster hands in the ruck cost a penalty and, while the side who led the league entering this weekend kept their line, a Ricky Lutton offside gave Thomas a straightforward opportunity to extend the lead to 8-0.
With Ulster quickly up at the other end, Jackson eased back into the pocket for a drop-goal. Scarlets threatened again with another visit into the 22 but this time Chris Henry got over the ball to force a penalty.
From the line-out, there was nice interplay from Jackson, Cave and Luke Marshall in midfield but still plenty for Gilroy to do. The wing flew up the touchline, however, with a measured chip and chase creating a score.
When Jackson converted, Ulster had an unlikely lead.
Scarlets came back however with Gareth Owen, Aled Thomas and Phil John doing well to keep the ball alive and when David Bulbring scooped it up, King and Parkes worked it across for Collins to score his second.
Thomas added the extras for a 15-10 advantage.
Four minutes from the half, Paul Marshall recognised a mismatch around the fringes and burst between two Scarlets forwards.
His pass put namesake Luke into a threatening position and the centre showed a turn of pace to beat Thomas before finishing strongly under intense pressure from Collins and Van der Merwe.
For the second time, Jackson nailed a testing conversion for a lead.
If not for Thomas striking his penalty against the post before the turn, the advantage would have changed hands once again.
Ten minutes into the half, Thomas brought his tally to 11 points with his side's last score of the day after Ian Davies lost patience with Ulster's breakdown work.
Henry was shown a yellow for the incident but Ulster continued to threaten.
Kiss freshened things up with a complete change of his front-row - meaning a debut for hooker Murphy - and another substitute, Sam Arnold, was bundled into touch.
As Henry prepared to return, and with Ruan Pienaar coming on for Paul Marshall, the last quarter seemed set for another Ulster come-from-behind victory but a tiring Scarlets held firm.
With Ulster going to the corner, they could make little headway with their rolling maul and when Scarlets were again pinged with 15 minutes remaining Jackson cut the deficit to a point.
The telling score would not come however, Scarlets forcing Ulster to knock on and Morgan Allen nicking a crucial line-out, and an attempt to run from their own 22 after the clock turned red brought no reward.
With two games to play before the fortnight break for the conclusion of the Six Nations, Ulster need to regroup quickly with a trip to Cardiff on Sunday and the hosting of Zebre a weekend later taking on greater importance.