Ulster's pre-season campaign may have ended in defeat, but the physical challenge posed by a full-strength Worcester side will have been regarded as a useful work-out by coach Matt Williams ahead of the start of the Magners League campaign.
With Williams choosing to use the game to explore more variations, Ulster struggled to contain an impressive Warriors’ outfit boasting world class talent in the shape of Chris Latham, Rico Gear and Samuel Tuitupou.
Still, the Ulster coach will have been impressed by his side’s refusal to lie down after weathering an early battering which saw them slip to a 10-point deficit and then rally again even when the Warriors stretched their lead to 20-3.
Ian Humphreys, a late change to their starting line-up to replace Paddy Wallace, who picked up an injury in the pre-match warm-up, looked a attacking threat and ran the game well from out-half while Fiji wing Timoci Nagusa also looked to have raised his game a further notch.
Ulster’s biggest downfall on the night, however, was an unforgiveably high handling error count, with something in the region of 14 balls lost in contact.
The game had barely got underway before Ulster were already aware of the size of their challenge. Worcester out-half Matthew Jones landed a first-minute penalty and with the home side unable to maintain any sort of possession in the opening exchanges, the visitors threatened to extend their advantage, with former All Blacks Tuitupou and Gear making serious dents in the Ulster defence.
Ulster were not helped by their high penalty count either while line-out problems also limited the home side’s source of possession. Against a practically full-strength Worcester side, bristling with intent ahead of the start of their English Premiership campaign, it was perhaps little surprise that an experimental Ulster side were under the cosh.
But coach Matt Williams will have been disappointed at the lack of composure and ball retention, which Worcester exploited when lock William Bowley drove
under the posts in the 16th minute after being fed by Pat Sanderson, who had stolen the ball from an Ulster put-in at the scrum, with Jones converting.
Ulster, now trailing by 10 points, knew they needed a foothold in the game and responded with vigour but prop Bryan Young lost the ball as he wriggled for the line after a couple of pick and drives from a line-out.
And while a cross-kick from Humphreys was just a fraction over-cooked for a chasing Byrn Cunningham, at least Ulster were starting to play the game in their opponents’ half.
And any sense of a friendly disappeared as tempers frayed after Cunningham was on the end of a late tackle, with a sizzling run by Paul Marshall from a tapped penalty giving Ulster further momentum, although the final blow could not be applied.
A huge tackle and drive on Chris Latham further stoked Ulster’s fires and after Paul Steinmetz had sparked a frantic race for the Worcester line with a kick ahead from a dropped ball by Dale Rasmussen, the home side deservedly reduced their deficit with a penalty by Ian Humphreys on the stroke of half-time.
Worcester, however were able to land another major blow when No 8 Netani Talei charged over in the corner for his side’s second try in the 46th minute after a sharp break from Miles Benjamin.
A comedy of errors then combined to leave Ulster clutching at straws when after a sharp break by first Kieron Dawson and then Chris Henry was turned over and Gear was able to harry Mark McCrea as he tried to gather a hack ahead, with the ball eventually ending up in Matthew Powell’s hands and he cantered over for Worcester’s third try in the 54th minute.
Ulster however refused to lie down and, as Williams utilised his bench, Mark McCrea finished off a half-break by Rob Dewey for a try on the hour mark from a slick move from a line-out and Humphreys’ conversion reduced the arrears to 10 points.
The home side couldn’t maintain their momentum however as the game lost its shape and a penalty by Loki Crichton gave Worcester further breathing space with a penalty in the 70th minute.
Ulster raised themselves for one last rally and Chris Henry was unlucky to lose the ball over the line before the game petered out.
Ulster: B Cunningham; T Nagusa, A Trimble (R Dewey 40), P Steinmetz (I Whitten 66), M McCrea; I Humphreys, P Marshall (C Willis 55); T Court, N Brady (S Philpott 66), B Young (J Fitzpatrick 40); C del Fava (F Paulo 40), R Caldwell; M McCullough (T Anderson 68), K Dawson (W Faloon 68), C Henry.
Worcester: C Latham (C Pennell 55); R Gear (M Garvey 55), D Rasmussen, S Tuitupou (L Crichton 63), M Benjamin; M Jones, M Powell; M Mullan, A Lutui (C Horsman 47), T Taumoepeau, W Bowley (G Kitchener 61), C Gillies, T Wood, P Sanderson (J Collins 47), N Talei (K Horstmann 47).
Referee: D Keane (IRFU)