Belfast Telegraph

Ulster's loud wake-up call

By Michael Sadlier

That was horrible. Yes it was a disjointed game with little pattern but to witness Ulster in this sort of form was both bewildering and decidedly disturbing.

It hadn't taken long before you sensed a palpable alarm infecting most of Ulster's work.

That didn't last though as soon there was much more visible evidence which showed that rescuing the situation was going to take either a piece of individual brilliance or a marvellous stroke of luck.

Not that the Dragons produced anything sensational last night, it was just that when it got down to brass tacks, Mark Anscombe's side had nothing much in the tank to suggest that they ever had the sufficient resources of composure and indeed skill to pull this one out of the fire.

And what transpired was also so frustrating.

As the clock ticked down and they went chasing what had seemed an unlikely draw, you couldn't help but wonder what might have happened had there been a TMO available at Rodney Parade and just how things could have panned out if Nick Williams' tackle-busting abilities had been available as the visitors desperately tried to get the ball over the line.

There was also no hiding place from the fact that Paddy Jackson's place-kicking just wasn't anywhere near where it should have been and that valuable points went begging.

But this defeat – and an opening one is never an encouraging sign – can't be completely levelled at one man's door.

As ever Ulster's basics appeared to be less than assured and from there, inevitably, things began to get unacceptably ragged though at least Robbie Diack gave everything to the wobbling cause.

Ulster certainly weren't helped by Italian referee Claudio Blessano's interpretations, but they also undermined themselves with far too many spilled balls and bad decisions made at critical moments.

They failed to score in the entire second half and that, alone, speaks volumes for their performance.

Chris Farrell will hardly enjoy the post-match video session but he definitely won't be alone.

Though no-one wanted to admit it, on paper, this wasn't the worst introduction to the league that Ulster could have had thrown at them and yet it ended with precious little to savour which not only caught the visitors out but also all the pundits who reckoned this was a case of 'it's only the Dragons, what could go wrong?'

Well it did go wrong and rather badly.

And, remember, this was a Dragons side without the talismanic Toby Faletau.

Even so, if you looked closely at Mark Anscombe's selection there were already doubts that last night could be anything like the six-try fest that was the outcome of the last time the sides met at Rodney Parade when Ulster triumphed 46-19 last October.

With no Williams, Tommy Bowe, John Afoa, Craig Gilroy and Rory Best as well as Ruan Pienaar, Stuart Olding and Iain Henderson all missing for various reasons, there was still a sense that this might not go entirely according to plan. And so it came to pass.

Indeed the way the opening 40 minutes panned out you had to wonder what frame of mind Ulster were in.

True, their set-piece looked superior with Ricky Lutton doing a lot of damage on the tight-head side of the scrum and though their lineout did create Roger Wilson's first half try, things were still far too sloppy in this area.

Ulster managed to lose three of their own lineouts in that first half and further damage was done by Jackson's failure to kick more than a solitary penalty – his one from four up to the half way point punishing the visitors.

Jason Tovey also missed with two of his four efforts otherwise it could have been very tricky indeed.

Ulster looked shaky from the off with Farrell spilling an early ball, Paul Marshall missing Andrew Trimble's inside run, Johann Muller giving away an early penalty and Rob Herring failing to find Diack's surge on his outside.

Still, Jackson bisected the posts after a strong scrum – the new protocol being no disadvantage to the visitors – to tie the scores and then just after the half hour came Ulster's best moment of the half.

Jared Payne's wonderful kick to the Dragons' corner saw Dan Tuohy steal their throw and the home pack conceded a penalty.

Muller could have asked Jackson to go for goal but instead asked him to put the ball in the corner. It proved a useful decision as after the skipper had claimed the throw, Ulster drove for the line and Wilson surged through for the score.

That was as good as it got though. Jackson missed the conversion and then just after the 20-minute mark he was wide with a penalty.

Into the second half, and even Ulster's scrum – with Tom Court and Declan Fitzpatrick on – attracted the wrath of the referee and they looked a beaten team.

Now it's time for coach Mark Anscombe to regroup and ensure this is quickly put behind them.

One thing's for sure – there will be no unbeaten run over in Wales this season.

Belfast Telegraph

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