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Ulster boys know deep down they can be better by half

By Jonathan Bradley

When Ulster's players sit down for the Monday morning video review of last night's win over the Ospreys, they could be forgiven for pleading with Neil Doak to switch the tape off half way through.

Having seemed to be in a position of relative comfort when Franco van der Merwe gave them an 18-3 lead, the visitors were allowed to come back and ensure that Ulster's supporters were unable to relax until just moments from the end of the contest.

Winners of seven from seven before last night, Ospreys had defied gloomy pre-season predictions made following the loss of players such as Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones over the summer to top the table at the international break.

However, while PRO12 neutrals would have perhaps liked to see this fixture fall at a time when both sides could have fielded their strongest line-ups, Ulster will have gleaned confidence from the Ospreys selection.

While injuries have taken their toll on Neil Doak's men in recent weeks, only Tommy Bowe, Rory Best and Robbie Diack are required by Joe Schmidt for Ireland's Test with Australia this evening.

The Ospreys squad in contrast was decimated by international call-ups with six of their players, including Lions duo Alun-Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric, and usual halfback pairing Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, set to represent Wales against New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium later on today.

Even though loose forwards James King and Dan Baker were returned by Warren Gatland, those absentees, coupled with the loss of centre Josh Matavesi and Jeff Hassler to the respective causes of Fiji and Canada, and injuries to Eli Walker, Joe Bearman and Ryan Bevington, left the visitors side with a skeletal look.

Ulster's start to the game will only have re-affirmed that appearance.

Fly-half Paddy Jackson - excluded from the Ireland set-up this month - had stated his desire for dry conditions but heavy rain during the day meant another wet Friday night at the Kingspan Stadium.

The 22-year-old however managed the conditions well early on and, before leaving with an ominous looking injury in the second-half, impressed with the boot to contribute to an early lead.

It was another not required by the national set-up, however, who opened the scoring.

With Ulster's scrum impressing early on they were able to play for territory and, after moving through the phases, it was Darren Cave who was forced his way over the line.

Having started for Ireland against Georgia on Sunday, the outside centre, who took home the man of the match award after adding the game-sealing score late on, will have been glad to make a good impression after receiving some mild criticism from sections of the press for his showing six days ago.

When Glasgow came to the Kingspan six weeks ago as, like Ospreys were yesterday, the league's leading side, Ulster's big men bossed their Scottish counterparts in what turned out to be a comfortable win.

History appeared to be repeating itself last night and, given how the pack performed in the first-half, there may not have been a happier man in the Kingspan at the turn than forwards coach Allen Clarke.

Wiehahn Herbst gave Duncan Jones a torrid time in the scrum before the former Welsh international departed with injury and Callum Black certainly was getting the better of Dmitri Arhip.

After Jackson knocked over knocked over two penalties, Ulster were boosted by a second try when Van der Merwe scored off a maul.

Then came half-time.

The contrast between the second and third quarters could hardly have been more pronounced and just three minutes after the restart Steve Tandy's forwards restored some pride when they were able to rumble over the line. Far from a mere consolation, an ever-improving scrum gave the Welsh a foothold and two penalties from Sam Davies reduced what had been a 15-point lead to just two.

As a palpable tension descended on the stadium, thoughts were no longer on the chase for a bonus point but merely holding on for a win.

There were some nervy moments before Darren Cave's second score made the game safe and the crowd's reaction to the try reflected the sizeable amount of relief in the stands.

With Munster at Thomond Park to come next week, Ulster's braintrust will be working on ensuring it is the team from last night's first half who turn up in Limerick.

Belfast Telegraph

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