Ulster’s revival under Matt Williams took another impressive step forward with a victory of real substance as the Scarlets were comfortably put to the sword at Ravenhill last night.
Having moved up to fifth place in the Magners League with three successive wins, Ulster broke their Heineken Cup Pool Four duck with a high octane performance which lacked only the fourth-try bonus point.
It will not be enough to salvage the campaign — which is still mathematically alive — although if Williams’ men can back the victory up with another win at Stradey Park next Friday, the games against Harlequins and Stade Francais in January will at least be meaningful affairs.
At this stage of the season however, of more import to Williams will have been the contrast between the Ulster side that conceded a lame 16-9 defeat to the Scarlets in Belfast back in September, on the opening day of the Magners League, and the one that tore apart the Welsh region in exhilarating manner last night.
For the first time in over two years, Ulster played with an intensity, purpose and tempo that used to be synonymous with European Cup nights at Ravenhill.
Tries by Darren Cave, Simon Danielli, David Pollock, and three penalties and a conversion by Ian Humphreys simply blew away the Scarlets, who could muster only three penalties by Stephen Jones and a late converted try by Ceiron Thomas.
Given that Williams’ men went into the contest on the back of two defeats and without a point to their name in Pool Four, there remains little hope of catching either Stade Francais or Harlequins who meet this afternoon.
Paddy Wallace was forced to withdraw from the Ulster team, having had a CT scan on a head injury yesterday afternoon, but the home side opened the scoring with a superb penalty by Humphreys in the seventh minute.
It was cancelled out by Stephen Jones three minutes later when Ulster’s ferocious defending encroached too far.
Ulster’s response was almost breath-taking. Robbie Diack and Cave provided some quick ball and when Humphreys put Trimble on a searing break in the midfield the try looked on but Darren Cave couldn’t hold the pass with the line at his mercy.
With Ulster continuing to press hard to slow down any Scarlets’ possession, and Humphreys fizzing out wide passes, it seemed only a matter of time before another opportunity would be carved out and, sur enough, a beautifully placed chip by Humphreys over the Scarlets defence line allowed Cave to touch down close to the posts in the 26th minute, with Humphreys slotting the conversion.
Frustratingly for Williams, his side conceded a penalty for not rolling away straight from the kick-off and Jones made no mistake with his second penalty to cut the deficit to four points.
But five minutes later Ulster had struck again with a sublime score from Danielli, who, from turn-over ball, seared past two props before dummying a pass and finishing from 30 metres.
From a five-metre scrum, the Scarlets conceded a penalty and although Humphreys fluffed his
kick, he got a second chance from the restart as Ulster won the ball back and this time he slotted his kick to give Ulster a commanding 12-point lead at the break.
A late tackle by Cillian Willis on his opposite number Martin Roberts handed Jones the opportunity to cut that lead with his third penalty six minutes after the restart but with Ulster guilty of sitting back and letting the Scarlets dominate possession, Jones crucially missed a relatively straightforward effort.
And when Humphreys landed a monstrous effort from 45 metres just on the hour mark, there was only going to be one winner.
Pollock then capped a superb performance with a try in the 64th minute after Danielli had forced the turnover from a Paul Steinmetz kick and Isaac Boss had shown speed and strength to hold off the cover tackle.
The race was now on for Ulster to secure the bonus point and a break by Diack almost barged his way over. The Scarlets however proved the party poopers when Thomas touched down in the last minute.
Ulster: B Cunningham; S Danielli, D Cave, P Steinmetz (M McCrea 69), A Trimble; I Humphreys (N O’Connor 71), C Willis (I Boss 50); J Fitzpatrick (T Court 50), R Best, BJ Botha, E O’Donoghue, R Caldwell, S Ferris (M McCullough 69), D Pollock, R Diack.
Scarlets: M Stoddart (L Williams 71); C Thomas, R King, J Davies, M Jones; S Jones, M Roberts (G Cattle 71); I Thomas (P John 66), M Rees (K Owens 55), D Manu, V Cooper, D Day, D Jones (J Edwards 71), S Easterby, D Lyons.
Referee: A Small (RFU).