Dragons 13 Ulster 20: Ulster are into the semi-finals of the Magners League following last night’s 20-13 victory over Newport Gwent Dragons.
Not having won at Rodney Parade since 2006 they can be forgiven for entering the Dragons’ den with a degree of misgiving. But if there was tension they hid it well albeit that the twin burdens of history and expectation must have weighed heavily on the shoulders of the white-shirted warriors.
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Before kick-off they had insisted that no-one in their close-knit camp would be paying any attention to events elsewhere, most notably those at the RDS, Stadio Zaffanella and Parc y Scarlets.
Easily said. One suspected, however, that in the event of things going pear-shaped in Newport, Brian McLaughlin, his players and those who had travelled to support might be keen to discover how exactly Leinster, Ospreys, Scarlets and Cardiff were faring.
For depending on the outcome of the four matches of the half-dozen that counted last night Ulster stood to finish second, third, fourth or, worst case scenario, fifth. Big, big stakes, then.
To their credit they proved they could handle the pressure, wrapping up the match by half-time.
They set their stall out early on with Darren Cave central in a knife-through-butter run at the home defence before Ian Humphreys nailed a fifth minute penalty from straight in front, 30 metres out. Perfect start.
It got better four minutes later when, with Ulster having taken a great ball off the top of a line-out on the left, Nevin Spence ran a wide arc which took him outside the home rearguard to score in the far corner. Home full-back Stefan Jones looked baffled. Had Ulster identified a weakness?.
Certainly in the build-up they had singled out fly-half Jason Tovey as a Dragons dangerman so when he limped off after 17 minutes to be replaced by Matt Jones — temporarily — that was another boost for the visitors. The newcomer cut the lead to 8-3 by kicking his first penalty attempt five minutes later, sparking an instant response by Ulster.
Robbie Diack charged through a huge gap before passing to the supporting Adam D’Arcy. From there skipper Rory Best continued the thrust which ultimately yielded an Ulster scrum in the Dragons 22 and half-a-dozen phases later Spence touched down again in the same spot as before.
Leading 13-3 and half-way to a four-try bonus with 50 minutes remaining and results elsewhere at that stage satisfactory, it was looking good for Ulster.
Their line-out was going well, as was their scrum, Ruan Pienaar oozed class behind a dominant back row and every time Ulster attacked they appeared to find holes in their hosts’ defence.
Three minutes before the break, however, the highly impressive Diack was rightly penalised for going over the top and putting hands in a ruck in his own 22 and Tovey punished the misdemeanor to make it 13-6.
Ulster answered with seven points courtesy of a Pedrie Wannenburg try — again from a line-out with the ball on this occasion thrown to the tail from where the big South African blindside powered through three men leaving Humphreys with an easy conversion for a 20-6 interval lead.
With the rain cascading down, Dragons set about making the final 40 minutes of their season count. Matt Jones clattered penalty off a post 10 minutes after the restart, but the let-off was temporary.
They came at Ulster in waves and were finally rewarded when, after a period of pressure, Matt Jones fed centre Tom Riley on the inside, enabling the midfielder to score after 57 minutes and the try’s architect to convert.
With the lead reduced to seven points, Humphreys failed to stretch it to 10 when he missed a 63rd minute penalty.
In truth, Ulster were unable to reproduce their first-half form, instead struggling to find some rhythm. Perhaps, subsconsciously, they knew they were there.
Pienaar continued to shine in the gathering gloom as the visitors closed in on a semi-final date with Leinster in Dublin.
It was a case of job done and by and large done very well. Another goal achieved, another huge feather in McLaughlin’s cap.