Cool Ruan rises above exit storm
Ulster 29 NG Dragons 8
It was never likely to be anybody else's night as Ruan Pienaar steered Ulster to a bonus-point 29-8 win over Dragons to kick-off their PRO12 campaign at Kingspan Stadium.
After it was announced earlier this week that he would be forced to end his time in Belfast after seven years this summer because of the IRFU's succession policy, Pienaar scored a try, created another and added two conversions.
A brace from Rob Lyttle, and efforts from Jacob Stockdale and Rob Herring, rounded out the scoring but the departing superstar took the applause.
Fans showed their support before kick-off with a spirited welcome to the field, and indeed a banner displaying their displeasure at the IRFU's stance, and the 32-year-old provided a fitting response early on as he created Ulster's opening score for Lyttle.
It was the try of his own, however, that ensured it would be a victorious start.
Ulster's third, just after half-time, was celebrated with a poignant patting of his Ulster crest but provided necessary breathing room after a stuttering start.
Indeed, the heavily favoured hosts had trailed 8-0 early on.
When Roger Wilson was pinged in the Dragons' '22', the Welsh region used the opportunity to advance into Ulster territory and took the lead through a Nick MacLeod penalty after Franco van der Merwe was caught not rolling away.
Matters worsened soon after when a loose pass from debutant Brett Herron set the visitors on the counter-attack.
MacLeod chipped over the top and former Munster wing Pat Howard had far too much pace in a race for the line with back-rower Clive Ross.
While the conversion was missed, Ulster were rocking on their heels and then lost Craig Gilroy to injury. With only a quarter of an hour gone, Queen's back Lyttle, who starred during pre-season, was thrown into the action.
And it was the substitute who got Ulster's first points of the season, created by Pienaar.
After Wilson and Ross combined to turn the ball over, the Springbok danced through the Dragons and chipped ahead.
When Howard fumbled, Lyttle took advantage. Pienaar nailed the sideline conversion and Ulster were within a point.
From one Academy wing to another, Stockdale gave Ulster the lead after half an hour.
Les Kiss' men were building pressure and when the ball came to Stockdale, with Wilson and Stuart McCloskey on his outside, he produced a delicate grubber perfectly measured for him to gather and score.
Shortly into the second half, Pienaar ensured his testing week would end on a high note with a score of his own.
After an expertly weighted box-kick pinned Dragons just inside their '22', the man who has been front and centre all week was there again to charge down Carl Meyer's attempted clearance and score.
With the bonus now expected, Ulster endured a frustrating spell with Dragons proving tough to break down but the full haul was secured with a quarter of an hour remaining.
Kingsley Jones' side appeared to have survived the threat when Stockdale was bundled into touch but an overthrown lineout was nabbed by Van der Merwe.
As Ulster moved the ball quickly, a debut score for Charles Piutau looked set to provide the icing on the cake and, although he was corralled, his pass out of a tackle set up Lyttle for a spectacular finish.
With the bonus point secured, new captain Herring added a fifth off a maul to conclude his own red letter day but the plaudits belonged to Pienaar.
He was serenaded off the field by chants from the crowd. After the last few days, the fans knew it was a performance to savour.
Ulster: C Piutau; C Gilroy, S Olding, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Herron, R Pienaar; C Black, R Herring (C), R Kane; P Browne, F van der Merwe; C Ross, S Reidy, R Wilson.
Replacements: J Andrew (for Reidy, 74), K McCall (for Black, 50), A Warwick (for Kane, 58), A O'Connor (for Browne, 57), R Diack (for Wilson, 56), P Marshall(for Piutau, 74), S Windsor (for McCloskey), R Lyttle (for Gilroy, 15).
Dragons: C Meyer, A Warren, S Beard, J Dixon, P Howard; N Macleod, S Pretorious; S Hobbs, T R Thomas C Mitchell; C Hill, R Landman; O Griffiths, N Cudd, E Jackson.
Replacements: R Buckley, T Davies (for Hobbs, 48), L Fairbrother (for Mitchell, 31), N Croswell (for Landman, HT), L Evans (for Griffiths, 24), C Davies, A O'Brien, T Morgan (for Beard, 37)
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Match rating: 7/10
Man of the match: Ruan Pienaar
Charles Piutau 7. Showed some nice touches on his competitive debut. He made Lyttle’s second try with a lovely off-load.
Craig Gilroy 5. Was only on the field for a quarter of an hour and never really got an opportunity to shine before picking up an injury.
Stuart Olding 6. Looked a bit rusty at times but came back into the game to assist with Ulster’s bonus-point victory.
Stuart McCloskey 7. As usual led the charge with some powerful running and kept driving forward until he was replaced.
Jacob Stockdale 7. Did really well for his first-half try and put in a sterling performance throughout. Looking good for game-time.
Brett Herron 6. Committed some notable early errors but, like the others, he grew into things as the game went on.
Ruan Pienaar 8. What can we say? What a week, yet he made the first try and even got one himself. Man of the match.
Callum Black 6. Delivered some solid work at the set-piece and performed his job well before being called ashore.
Rob Herring 7. Had to lead by example to really get Ulster going and was rewarded when he registered a secondhalf try.
Ross Kane 6. A competitive debut for the Academy player and he stood up well in the set-pieces and around the park.
Peter Browne. 7 Some strong carries and presence at the breakdown. He put in a big shift before being replaced.
Franco van der Merwe 7. Worked away with industrious effort at the coalface and took the ball which led to the bonus try.
Clive Ross 7. Skinned for Howard’s try but worked so hard over the course of the contest and put in a really big shift.
Sean Reidy 7. First game back and it understandably took time for him to get to the pace of the game. Worked hard.
Roger Wilson 7. He grew into the game and helped secure the turnover which led to Rob Lyttle’s first-half try.
R Lyttle for Gilroy (15 mins): Did really well after coming on early in the game and bagged two tries. 8
A Warwick for Kane (38 mins): Also made his mark in the game and helped gain the bonus point. 7
K McCall for Black (50 mins): Solid and energetic off the bench. 6
A O’Connor for Browne (56 mins): Really physical and imposing. 7
R Diack for Wilson (56 mins): Decent lineout presence and work. 7
S Windsor for McCloskey (60 mins): Looked comfortable and reliable both on the ball and without possession. 7
P Marshall for Piutau (73 mins): Brought loads of zip to the game after being sprung from the bench. 7
J Andrew for Reidy (73 mins): Also contributed soundly to the win. 6