Ulster driving on
NG Dragons 19 Ulster 46
Last season Ulster’s trip to Rodney Parade ended in a 22-9 defeat. On Friday night, just over a year later, they returned to that often-unproductive Newport venue and ran up six tries en route to a convincing victory. What a difference 13 months have made.
It’s part of a trend, of course, for whereas in 2011-12 Ulster were beaten in each of their four visits to Wales, this campaign has seen a complete reversal of those results.
Three times to date this season they have visited the Principality and on each occasion they have come home with a win — two of them of bonus point-earning proportions.
Their fourth visit will be to Llanelli to face Scarlets who currently are second to Ulster in the PRO12 race. Even now that December 2 clash promises to be quite a spectacle.
But then the whole of that month does, the forthcoming Yuletide fare consisting of back-to-back Heineken Cup dates with Aviva Premiership leaders Northampton Saints followed by PRO12 inter-pros with Leinster in Belfast and Munster in Limerick.
Ulster’s latest triumph, on a night when — by their own admission — they did not play particularly well and were guilty of a number of mistakes, underlined the extent of their on-going improvement.
It also confirmed the depth of their squad and their know-how when it comes to using it. Thus far in coach Mark Anscombe’s reign we have witnessed clever rotation in tandem with the well-timed introductions of those on the bench.
Friday night saw Anscombe deploy all eight of his replacements, every one of whom made a contribution. Vitally, in view of Ulster’s pending programme and the depletion of the ranks the autumn internationals are about to cause, Roger Wilson and Declan Fitzpatrick got game-time.
It was the former’s first senior-level action since rejoining from Northampton, a serious hamstring tear having taken a very long time to heal.
Fitzpatrick had made just one appearance prior to Friday — seven weeks earlier against Ospreys in Swansea, so he needed to play.
There were also welcome and significant runs for Nigel Brady, Callum Black and Mike McComish — 40, 21 and 18 minutes respectively.
All those players are going to feature in the coming weeks so it was important that they got a chance to blow away a few cobwebs ahead of this week’s Ravenhill date with Edinburgh (Friday, 7.05pm), followed by that five-day turn-around in Italy where they face Zebre on Sunday, November 18 in the rearranged round four game and Benetton Treviso on November 23.
Ulster’s six-try win in Newport where Tom Court, Nick Williams and Ruan Pienaar scored first-half tries, with Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble and 66th minute replacement Jared Payne following suit after the interval, implies well-nigh perfect rugby.
But it wasn’t and acting captain Chris Henry was admirably frank in admitting that had not been the case.
The once again outstanding openside, who speaks as honestly as he plays, got straight to the point.
“It took us a while to settle into our set-piece. Our scrum wasn’t functioning well and the Dragons were doing a good job at the breakdowns,” was his blunt analysis.
“But the subs who came off our bench really made a massive impact and obviously we’re delighted to get those five points.”
Next up Edinburgh and ahead of Friday night’s Belfast meeting with the Scots, attack coach Neil Doak said: “Obviously a number of the guys have been selected for the Irish squad and we’ll have to see how we are injury-wise, too.”