Rugby: Dragons put to the sword
Ulster put on second half masterclass
Ulster completed a magnificent week for sport in the province with a stunning bonus-point victory over the Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade last night to go back to the top of the Magners League.
Following their opening day victory against Llanelli, the champions produced another sizzling second-half show to outscore their hosts by 12 points in a hugely entertaining contest.
After tries by Andrew Maxwell and the superb Bryn Cunningham (2), the decisive score came from the most unlikely of sources - substitute prop Declan Fitzpatrick.
The Belfast Harlequins man was on hand to convert a thrilling break by scrum-half Kieran Campbell for Ulster's fourth try in the 69th minute, with David Humphreys slotting the conversion to put Ulster seven points clear.
The visitors had to dig deep in the final 10 minutes as the Dragons roared on in a desperate bid to salvage the game. But some heroic defending saw Ulster cling on to stretch their unbeaten league record in 2006 to 12 games.
It was an absorbing, try-packed first-half as both side took chunks out of each other and jockeyed for position, with the lead changing hands several times.
Ulster got off to the worst possible start when after only three minutes, Dragons forward Nic Fitisemanu barged over for the game's opening try after first Colin Charvis and Nathan Brew had made midfield busts and out-half Mike Hercus had delivered a slick pass to put his No 8 over. Sweeney added the simple conversion.
The visitors responded with the poise of champions. Mark Bartholomeusz and Bryn Cunningham combined on the left, with the full-back jagging back midfield before Tom Court set up the ruck and Humphreys found Maxwell who stepped off his inside to race over in the seventh minute. Humphreys added the conversion to level the scores.
Ulster then briefly held the lead after quick ball had enabled Wallace to cut through, recycle the ball and Tim Barker was on hand to make the hard yards. The attack was continued by Paul Steinmetz, who weaved his way into the Dragons 22 and when the home side were caught offside, Humphreys was on hand to slot the penalty in the 12th minute.
Ulster continued to look sharp with ball in hand, but a couple of shaky scrums undermined their efforts. And despite missing two touches from penalty punts, the Dragons struck back, albeit against the run of play.
As Ulster looked to attack from inside their own half, a loose pass by Bartholomeusz was gathered by Fitisemanu and his pass inside was hacked ahead by Aled Black who then managed to gather with the line at his mercy and score his side's second try in the 19th minute, with Sweeney's conversion putting the home side four points clear.
When Kieran Campbell was taken out illegally as he tried to gather a 22-metre restart, Humphreys failed to cut the deficit when he pulled his penalty chance wide.
But Ulster then produced their sublime moment of their season to date with a superb try to reclaim the lead. From a line-out on the 10-metre line, Ferris made a rampaging burst up the middle before a cut-out pass put Wallace away. The centre found Bartholomeusz, who raced up the right-hand touchline before putting Bryn Cunningham away for a sensational score, with Humphreys converting.
The momentum was with Ulster and the visitors should have taken further advantage when first Justin Harrison charged down a clearance kick by Mike Hercus but Roger Wilson couldn't make the try line. Moments later the Ulster No 8 was unfortunate to be held up over the line following a thunderous drive from a scrum 15 metres out.
Ulster's profligacy proved was punished. The visitors were penalised at the scrum and moments later, Craig Warlow gathered a loose kick by Cunningham and after Charvis had made ground, Aled Brew raced up the touchline, chipped ahead and with inches to spare grounded the ball in the 34th minute ahead of a despairing lunge by Kieran Campbell to put the Dragons in front at the interval.
Ulster quickly set about reducing the deficit and four minutes from the restart Humphreys slotted his second penalty after the out-half had split the visitors defence with a pin-point cross-kick taken by Bartholomeusz.
Sweeney responded in kind in the 47th minute however and then the game was stopped for 10 minutes as Wallace and Fitisemanu required treatment as the pair clashed heads in a heavy tackle by the Dragons flanker on the Ulster centre. Wallace returned to action with a bandage on his head but the Fitisemanu retired on a stretcher with his neck in a brace in what looked a serious injury.
Ulster seized the initiative following the delay, with Cunningham touching down for his second try in the 56th minute to level the scores from a cute chip-kick by Steinmetz after Bartholomeusz and Wallace had again combined on the opposite touchline and Wallace had almost staggered to the line.
As the clock ticked by, the next score assumed greater significance and it was Ulster who looked the more likely, with Humphreys and Steinmetz kicking superbly and Bartholomeusz making ground with every touch.
And so it proved. After the visitors had made ground with a composed attack, Campbell made a sensational break into the danger zone before putting replacement prop Declan Fitzpatrick over for his first competitive Ulster try in the 69th minute and the visitors bonus point.
The game now looked beyond the home side, but they rallied for one final push and it took some desperate Ulster defence, with a steal by Matt McCullough and a huge hit by Kevin Maggs on Nathan Brew the stand-out moments, for the visitors to close out a superb victory.