Ulster 20 Scarlets 18: Ulster took a huge stride towards a place in the Magners League semi-finals by virtue of last night’s hard-earned win over Scarlets.
It was a hit and miss performance, but in the end Ulster got the result they needed, if only just.
Both sides knew what was at stake for with only three matches to go after this they knew they could ill-afford any slips.
In the countdown, Scarlets’ coach Nigel Davies described it as being “like a cup final for us”.
His Ulster counterpart, Brian McLaughlin, had used that same analogy four weeks earlier in the wake of his side’s 23-10 March 4 victory over Aironi.
Ulster opened brightly with a first minute shimmy by Ian Humphreys reminding the crowd of what they had been missing in his injury-enforced absence and suggesting he was in the mood.
But it was the guests who broke the deadlock after eight minutes when Stephen Jones knocked over a straightforward penalty.
Scarlets’ wing, Morgan Stoddart, earlier had beaten a couple of defenders with disconcerting ease and when he did so again a murmur of concern went through the 8,646-strong home crowd.
Their side had not really settled and when, after 12 minutes, Ruan Pienaar was well short with an ambitious penalty from seven metres inside his own half, their anxiety grew a little more,
The first quarter passed with Ulster in second gear, unable to get out of it and looking nervous. Nor were those nerves helped as Pienaar failed with a second penalty attempt in the 26th minute.
They were settled moments later, however, by a flash of Humphreys brilliance which saw him cut through the visitors’ defence like the proverbial knife through butter for a superb solo try out of nothing. Pienaar added the extras to put Ulster 7-3 up and suddenly their hitherto absent confidence returned.
Humphreys was to the fore in a superlative left-to-right back line move that ended with Andrew Trimble being forced into touch in the corner as Ulster began to slip through the gears.
Scarlets momentarily disrupted the flow when Jones popped over an easy penalty from straight in front on the 22 to make it 7-6, but the final five minutes of the first 40 belonged to the hosts and their scrum-half Pienaar.
Scarlets conceded a swift brace penalties, with their skipper Matthew Rees earning himself a ticking off by referee Graham Knox for his violation of the laws in the second instance.
Both were punished by Pienaar who, having missed his first two kicks of the night, made it three in a row. The second of that pair-in-two-minutes was a gem from wide left between and 10-metre and half-way lines which saw Ulster go in leading 13-6.
The was a half-time worry, however, namely that Scarlets still had the use of a considerable breeze to come.
When the teams returned, Jones — the man who might have made most use of that advantage – was missing having picked up an injury. But any notion that Scarlets would fold as a result of his withdrawal was answered in no uncertain terms.
They came at Ulster like bats out of hell and their opening salvo produced a dividend when Jones’s replacement, Daniel Evans, put Jon Davies away for a try in the corner. Rhys Priestland was unable to convert from touch but Ulster’s lead had been cut to 13-11.
They had another huge fright when Stoddart thought he had won the race to touch the ball down in-goal before it went into touch, but TMO Marshall Gilgore ruled in Ulster’s favour.
That let-off kick-started Brian McLaughlin’s side who rallied with several promising passages, each initiated by Humphreys.
Scarlets were reduced to 14 when Josh Turnbull was yellow-carded and although Ulster were unable to capitalise, the Llanelli men duly got their comeuppance.
In the 77th minute a Simon Danielli thrust took Ulster deep into the guests’ 22 and although the Scottish international wing did not have the legs to go all the way the pack arrived en masse to recycle at speed, enabling Humphreys to finish and Pienaar to convert, so opening up a nine-point gap.
In the final minute David Lyons raced in for a second Scarlets try, with Priestland addition of the extras leaving it 20-18.
That’s six in a row for Ulster – and the last time they did that they won the Magners League.
ULSTER PLAYER RATINGS
By Michael Sadlier