Ulster choke on starter against Gwent Dragons
Ulster 8 Newport Gwent Dragons 15: Ulster were juddered into a rude awakening on their season opener last night in Wales with Newport Gwent Dragons making light of their recent record against last term's table-toppers – five wins in their six previous encounters.
The seldom-wrong bookmakers reckoned that provided sufficient evidence to install Ulster as firm favourites to extend their impressive sequence against opponents who finished 11th of the 12 participants in 2012-13.
They were wrong. The counterbalance to the odds-setters' seemingly logical argument was that sometimes underdogs are capable of punching well above their weight at the outset of new campaigns into which they wade full of as yet unsullied enthusiasm.
So it proved. Ulster were well beaten. With most of the partisan home crowd of 5,165 behind them, the Dragons gave them something to cheer. The perfect conditions – dry pitch and ball and a not a breath of wind – invited running rugby and from the off they showed their intention of doing so.
They had the better of the opening exchanges, courtesy of some impressively direct running. Early on, centres Jack Dixon just 18 and a real talent – and Pat Leach chinked and jinked menacingly.
Jason Tovey missed a third minute penalty, but promptly showed he had put that behind him by dropping a neat goal five minutes later. No arguing with that 3-0 lead; NGD were worth it given their high-tempo opening salvo.
Ulster responded by exerting pressure in two successive scrums, with the second yielding a penalty which Paddy Jackson goaled with ease to level the scores.
Tovey edged ahead once again in the personal battle of the fly-halves by stroking a 45-metres penalty – awarded against Ulster for not releasing in ruck – between the posts to restore the three-point advantage.
As before, that was shortlived, with Ulster tightening the screw close to the home line, enabling No8 Roger Wilson to bag his side's first try of the new campaign. Jackson was unable to add the extras from midway out on the right, however.
On the plus side, the Ulster set-pieces were solid, with the scrum getting better and better as the first half wore on. Another concerted drive forced the concession of a further penalty, but again Jackson was off-target from distance.
Another powering Dixon surge gained huge yardage for the hosts, with Ulster more than happy to regain possession from a scrum awarded against the home forwards who were over-zealous in their bid to make something of the young midfielder's work.
It was becoming a little tetchy and moments later Ulster were awarded a penalty by Italian referee Claudio Blessano following some off-the-ball nonsense from which Ricky Lutton and Wilson walked away sheepishly and home No8 Lewis Evans was warned for his part in the incident.
But Jackson's place-kicking was beginning to unravel, a point underlined when, midway through the second quarter, he miscued a third successive off-the-tee effort, leaving him with a worrying one from four return.
The harsh award of a penalty when Ulster full-back Jared Payne inadvertently knocked a towering kick forward into the hands of left wing David McIlwaine offered Tovey a chance to restore the hosts' lead, but he too failed to avail of it. One out of three for him at that stage.
Leading 8-6 going into the second half, the pace of Ulster's restart made it plain that they were intent on putting a little more clear water between themselves and the Welsh. It did not work out that way, for although an Andrew Trimble-Luke Marshall thrust looked promising, an infringement in the 22 let the Dragons off the hook.
And Ulster were reminded of the cost of having done so when, from straight in front and just beyond the 10-metre line, Tovey split the posts with his second penalty of the night to nudge his team into a one-point lead.
Challenged to pick up the gauntlet, Ulster's response was a rolling maul towards the Dragons line following a Dan Tuohy line-out take. But seemingly having done the hard part by establishing a camp, they forfeited the chance to climb from it by conceding a scrum-time penalty deep in the home 22.
Going into the final quarter they still trailed by a point and the concession of another penalty in a scrum just inside their own half was duly punished by Tovey, leaving Ulster requiring a try if they were to avoid an opening night defeat.
A crooked line-out throw in a good attacking position added to Ulster's woes and anxiety, with a wretched midfield pass giving rise to the fear that it was going to be one of those nights.
Wave after wave of white shirts piled forward to no avail. The mistakes continued, with the home crowd loving it each time Ulster got it wrong. They did so again in the 70th minute and having recovered from his first-half misjudgement, Tovey stepped up to complete a second-half hat-trick of penalties making it 15-8.
A relentless series of drives by Ulster close to the Dragons line were repelled by outstanding home defence until finally a knock-on gave them a scrum which in turn became a penalty. One of those nights.