Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Winning ugly but 12 in a row a brilliant feat for Ulster

Ulster's Craig Gilroy is tackled by Scarlet's Gareth Davies.

Yes, it was another of those ugly-looking wins but, yet again, the force remains with Ulster.

And when it comes to power and determination this side can mine seemingly bottomless resources of resolve and, clearly, no-one is going to find it easy to stop their winning run, which has now been extended to 12 in two competitions.

There was no denying that it was a pretty awful game, played in equally miserable conditions, but it was another four points which has given Ulster a healthy lead over the Scarlets in the league as everyone’s attention now turns to Europe.

There will huge emphasis and scrutiny given to the importance of Ulster’s scrummaging when they take on the mighty Northampton Saints eight on Friday night and here it was, again, showing just how potent a weapon it can be with John Afoa and co doing so much damage.

The Saints will be a different challenge altogether but, last night, the scrum provided the platform Ulster needed to nudge ahead and seal off this error-strewn game.

But Ulster had more on show than mere grunt. Paddy Jackson again stepped up with a fine kicking display both from the tee and out of hand while he was ably assisted by Paul Marshall, despite a few kicks being too long.

They even survived having Dan Tuohy sent to the bin in the 64th minute, though Aled Thomas’ penalty miss — he was wastefully wide with three altogether — was a massive help for the visitors.

Yes, Ulster also rode their luck — again a familiar refrain — and got their game-winning break when Andrew Trimble held on to the greasy ball for that intercept run from his own half, after Ulster’s defence had come up in the Scarlets’ faces, to dot down under the sticks and give Jackson the easy two points.

They made a bit of a mess of a few early re-starts and got pinged a lot — harshly it has to be said — at the breakdown where Robbie Diack and Iain Henderson worked so hard. But when Ulster got it together, albeit rarely, they played the game at a level the Scarlets just couldn’t reach.

Indeed it was from an unpromising moment, in the second half, that Ulster managed to deploy their superior firepower up front to get that vital edge.

The Scarlets had seen Aled Thomas close things to 16-9, in the 52nd minute, when Ulster tried to move the ball.

Peter Nelson received the sort of pass from Darren Cave that meant only one thing. But after Nelson was bundled into touch, the Scarlets then messed up their own lineout and conceded a scrum which must have filled them with dread, especially as both Rory Best and Tom Court had been brought on to the already-dominant Ulster set-piece.

The inevitable happened as the Ulster eight trundled their way forward and the penalty came their way.

Up stepped Paddy Jackson and his nailing of the penalty made it 19-9 which, on the night that was in it, looked to have already wrapped things up.

Not that they made things particularly easy for themselves – thanks to Tuohy’s binning, a high penalty count and a scrum that seemed to, strangely, get on the wrong side of referee Peter Fitzgibbon in the latter stages. But there was enough in the tank to ensure the error count wasn’t too punishing.

Defensively they were sound. One particularly memorable tackle from Paddy Jackson prevented number eight Kieran Murphy from running on to score while, elsewhere, Cave and Luke Marshall (right) pulled off big hits at vital times.

Such moments gave definition to a game which was hardly memorable — poor Craig Gilroy could never break free in his 40 minutes — and yet was all about Ulster just doing what was required to get what was needed.

Initially, things had not gone well in the teeming rain at Parc y Scarlets and Ulster looked decidedly rusty.

Even the first scrum went against them, yet good sides are able to survive their wobbly moments and make the scoreboard tick over when it matters and, as usual, this duly happened.

It began to click around the 20th minute and, typically, it was from the set-piece that all things began to coalesce.

When Roger Wilson was adjudged to have knocked on from a Scarlets kick-through, the net result was a huge Ulster shunt on the home side’s put-in which won possession for Paul Marshall.

If that hadn’t set the alarm bells ringing for the Scarlets’ eight then they heard them loud and clear a minute later when the Welsh tried to launch a driving maul off a lineout which only resulted in them being crabbed sideways by some excellent work from Ulster’s forwards and another of those punishing scrums.

So, with victory secured we leave the league with a perfect 10.

Now, though, the gradient gets much steeper.

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