RaboDirect PRO12: Scarlets sunk by Ulster at Ravenhill
Ulster made the start to December they needed, coming from 10-0 down to win 24-17 last night at Ravenhill.
At the end of the first quarter that had seemed an improbable outcome. But Ulster rose to the challenge after the worst of starts.
With less than two minutes on the clock they found themselves 5-0 in arrears having gifted the guests the softest of tries.
Ulster appeared to be in control of things as they moved the ball across the line from left to right. But, with no real pressure on him, Pedrie Wannenburg's ill-advised pass was intercepted by Sean Lamont. The Scarlets' left wing could hardly believe his luck as he ran in unopposed from the 22.
Ulster rallied, with their big names to the fore. From a wind-driven up and under, Stephen Ferris took a great catch on the 22 and set forth on a typically aggressive run almost to half-way. Andrew Trimble was next to make a charge, followed by Darren Cave. Promising.
So too was a Craig Gilroy chip which just failed to beat the Scarlets back three. Undeterred, Trimble, Ferris and anxious-to-atone Wanneburg linked well in making ground.
Ian Humphreys had a penalty opportunity on 10 minutes but kicking into the wind from 37 metres was asking too much and his pot at the Aquinas end posts failed.
A bad situation became worse after 18 minutes when Scarlets opened up the Ulster defence for a second time. A change of direction did the trick because when the ball went right to Tongan international wing Viliami Iongi, making his Scarlets debut, there was no-one between him and the line.
Stephen Jones failed with his conversion from the right touchline, just as he had from the left when Lamont scored.
Two scores behind it was vital that Ulster kept in touch because, with the wind at their backs in the second half, they would be in with a shout.
Humphreys trimmed three points off the differential with a straightforward 21st minute penalty, but as has been the case in recent weeks they continued to make things hard for themselves by making too many mistakes and showing too little invention.
But then they were offered a huge helping hand when Scarlets full-back Daniel Evans was yellow-carded for foul play on Humphreys as he fronted a dangerous Ulster raid along the left touchline. And no sooner had Evans taken his place in the sin bin than Ulster scored.
Scrum-half Paul Marshall was key in the try's creation, chipping cleverly into the space vacated by the absent full-back and then getting up in pursuit to keep the pressure on. The ball was kept alive and when Ulster moved it right-left there was a massive overlap. Ferris applied the finish but it could have been any one of three players.
As a result, they turned round just 10-8 in arrears. The scrum and line-out having worked well, now it was about using the elements - and their heads.
They wasted no time. Again Marshall's astute kicking was crucial; it took them deep into the guests' 22 and with a base camp established the pressure on Scarlets forced two quick penalties which Humphreys popped over in the 44th and 46th minutes.
So, from 10-0 down they now led 14-10. On 55 minutes Dan Tuohy, who had a fine match, and Tom Court made way for Lewis Stevenson and Paddy McAllister at lock and loose-head respectively.
Humphreys' eye was in, a fact he underlined just short of the hour by landing his third successive post-interval penalty - a much harder kick than any of his previous three successes - to make it 17-10.
Nevin Spence was withdrawn at the start of the final quarter, with Ian Whitten deputising at inside-centre. Moments later Marshall followed, with Ruan Pienaar taking over at pivot. The exchange earned loud applause for both scrum-halves.
Ulster were going for broke and their quick passing saw the Scarlets rearguard shredded to pieces as Ferris romped in for his second touchdown of the night. Humphreys split the posts to maintain his 100% second-half kicking record.
Adam Macklin entered and exited in a blink, his first involvement after replacing John Afoa earning him a yellow card. And with Ulster a man light, Scarlets cashed in with a late try by Kieran Murphy converted by captain Jones to bag a losing bonus.