Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Ulster finding extra gear at right time

Lift off: Try scorer Michael Allen in outstanding form for Ulster last night

This was so much better and Ulster even began to look like a team wanting to showcase the fact that they can play with pace and great skill.

Five tries was the perfect response to the yips we had seen against the Dragons and Glasgow. The precision and dynamism which they brought to hitting space was hugely encouraging while the ball-carrying from Robbie Diack and Iain Henderson did much to assist the quick ball that was created.

Clearly the script was going to evolve around returning Lions Tommy Bowe and Rory Best – the latter bringing much direction to Ulster's work – and it was wholly appropriate that they crossed for tries but winger Michael Allen also held his hand up as a powerful runner and determined finisher with his brace.

And Jared Payne's partnership with other try scorer Luke Marshall in midfield looked so comfortable than it seemed they had been playing together as regular centre partners.

Paddy Jackson also looked comfortable playing it flat on the gain-line as the springboard to so much of Ulster's good work going forward though, again, his place-kicking statistics were not what he would have wanted.

But for all the singing and dancing, there were still niggles and rough edges which crept into Ulster's game. Some of their work at scrum-time was not what it should have been while individual errors such as Paul Marshall's knock-on at the start of the second half were not pretty to watch.

Lewis Stevenson's sin-binning also put his side under the cosh though the 25-6 lead was never likely to be endangered and Ulster only conceded one score to a re-energised Treviso effort.

You had to admire the way Ulster started with such explosiveness with the ball in hand.

We saw it as early as the second minute when Bowe released Allen, who popped up on Bowe's wing, and though Allen got over the line it was ruled out by the TMO.

Ulster quickly recovered and a lineout maul drove its way over the Treviso line only for the TMO to again rule out any score.

There were some unforced errors as with Dan Tuohy's rather rash one-handed offload attempt, but the tempo and composure quickly returned and after the strong running Robbie Diack won a lineout, Payne picked a great angle of Jackson's pass and drew two defenders before presenting Luke Marshall with a score under the sticks.

It was a move played at pace and with sufficient skill and vision to carve the Italians wide open. Allen finally got the score he deserved just before the half hour mark – he had earlier shown great strength when ripping the ball clear from prop Alberto De Marchi – when Payne provided the assist after Ulster had moved it right and left.

The final score-line suggests a romp for Ulster, but it wasn't just so easy. Bowe's score came gift-wrapped, but Best's was another pulsating move while after coming through their rocky period it was fitting that Allen had the final say with a great try to round it all off.

This always felt like it would be an Ulster win but, for all that, you still couldn't help but cast the mind back on some of what has come before and then ponder on how poor Treviso actually were last night.

Last season was a real struggle when the two sides met. Admittedly both occasions were during international windows, but when Ulster just escaped by the skin of their teeth from the Stadio di Monigo, by winning 16-15 last November, there was at least some justice done when the Italians grabbed a draw when the teams crossed swords again in March.

Then, of course, there was October two years ago when Treviso racked up their first ever win over Ulster when a stunned Ravenhill saw Kris Burton score 18 of his side's points in their historic 23-12 victory.

That shock result was a third consecutive reverse for Brian McLaughlin's side who then went on to lose a fourth straight game at the Scarlets in their next outing. That doubtless did terminal damage to the then coach's chances of staying despite Ulster going on to make it to that season's Heineken Cup final.

And talking of things European, you couldn't help but reflect on the continuing mess which is rapidly engulfing the game regarding the English and French clubs determination to press ahead with the Rugby Champions Cup.

With both Ulster and Treviso set to meet in the European pool stages alongside Leicester Tigers (visitors to Ravenhill just under a fortnight) and Montpellier, we could then well be looking at pretty much the last hurrah for the Heineken Cup as we have known it.

And where that will leave both Ulster and Treviso is anyone's guess – though it would seem that all the Celtic nations and Italy are determined to hold what they have – never mind what it may do for the English and French should the IRB now start to get really heavy with the plans to abandon the current structure.

Anyway, these battles are for another day. Right now, Ulster march on feeling so much better about themselves and with Europe now on the horizon what better way to get in shape for the huge challenge that is to come.

Ulster are now ticking along nicely, but there is still much work to be done.

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