Ulster make it six of the best as Cardiff Blues feel the PAYNE
Ulster 39-21 Cardiff Blues
Ulster made it six of the best last night, clocking up their sixth successive victory and taking a maximum haul of five points from Cardiff Blues yet again.
Mark Anscombe's men were clear favourites going into last night's encounter. Last season they banked a maximum 10 points from their two meetings with Cardiff and the last time the Blues played in Belfast they went down 37-13. They last won at Ravenhill in April 2010.
Indeed, their most recent away-day success against anybody was back in February when they shaded the verdict by a point against a struggling Edinburgh side at Murrayfield. Not good travellers, then.
In addition they had beaten Ulster just once in their previous six attempts – February 2012 – and that was in Cardiff, not Belfast. So last night everything – current form, past results, venue – pointed to a home win.
Nor was John Afoa's upgrade from the bench to tight-head starter when Declan Fitzpatrick was withdrawn yesterday afternoon a negative; the former All Black is a World Cup winner, after all.
His tete-a-tete with Blues captain Gethin Jenkins promised to be a bit tasty. It was – from a home perspective, for the Ulster scrum was the success story of the night. Straight from the kick-off they were awarded one on half-way and although Cardiff made it messy the hosts succeeded in securing possession.
The passage ended with Cardiff given a scrum which Ulster turned to earn themselves the put-in. At that the under-pressure guests coughed up a penalty and from wide right Paddy Jackson potted the opening points after eight minutes.
It was a shortlived advantage, however, for at once Cardiff levelled from a Leigh Halfpenny penalty awarded by Italian referee Giuseppe Vivarini for not rolling away.
Ulster's response was breathtaking. Outside centre Jared Payne made a great break down the right, initiating a move that finished in the left corner where lock Dan Tuohy popped up to touch down after Luke Marshall and Robbie Diack created the overlap. Jackson sliced his conversion but Ulster had an 8-3 lead.
Hooker Rory Best exited, with Rob Herring deputising, but the home scrum lost none of its potency. Creaking Cardiff were penalised for a crooked feed on their put-in, followed by the concession of a penalty. Immediately, Ruan Pienaar seized the initiative and as a result of his quick thinking Payne was able to finish in the corner, making it 13-3, though once again Jackson miscued the conversion.
Having failed from wide right and wide left he made no mistake when offered a further opportunity to kick for goal from straight in front – 16-3 after half an hour.
By now they had the Cardiff scrum in a stranglehold with the introduction of replacement tight-head Taufa'ao Filise confirming their unease.
So it was against the flow that the Blues hit back with a 34th minute try,Wexford man Robin Copeland having taken full advantage of a slack Ulster defence by picking up from a breakdown and brushing off a frail challenge to score.
Halfpenny was unable to convert, but he had no problem when Cardiff then forced a penalty mid-way out on the right. That sailed over and all of a sudden a 13-point lead had been reduced to just five.
Still, Ulster were half-way to a try-bonus victory as the second period got under way and the intensity of their play from the restart suggested they were intent on getting it.
A Stuart Olding dart and a great off-load to Luke Marshall resulted in the powerfully built midfielder grounding the ball for a try confirmed by TMO Peter Ferguson. Once more, Jackson was unable to add the extras, but he quickly made amends with a penalty which was a double-whammy for Cardiff in that it also saw Copeland sent to the sin-bin for a ruck infringement.
Trailing 24-11, Cardiff had to hit back to avoid sinking trace. To their credit they did, with wing Richard Smith doing well to avoid putting a toe in touch as he stretched for the line. Halfpenny landed a magnificent conversion and Ulster's lead was cut to six points.
Pienaar stretched it to nine with one of his long-range exocets of a penalty, but when Ulster then conceded one just inside their own 10-metres line Halfpenny replied in kind.
Pienaar rattled a post from half-way, following which he was well off target with another attempt. At that stage Ulster had missed out on 13 points off the tee.
But the fourth try and with it the bonus came in the 66th minute with Andrew Trimble – scorer of a brace when Cardiff last called – scoring in the right corner after a flowing back line move. Pienaar's conversion miss saw two more points squandered.
But the night ended on a high with Tuohy scoring at the death, Trimble's invention having made the chance.
This time Pienaar made no mistake.
Ulster go rolling on.