Fired-up Ulster finally banish their blues
Cardiff Blues 22 Ulster 35
Ulster finally got back to winning ways in the PRO12 with a five-try 35-22 bonus-point victory over Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park on Saturday.
After a spell of poor form and inactivity, it was a first league win since the beginning of October and exactly the preparation Les Kiss would have craved as he gets ready for the first leg of a European double-header with Top 14 giants Clermont this weekend.
Just a second try-bonus of the campaign, and the first on the road since the final day of last season, the victory came courtesy of scores from Charles Piutau, Stuart McCloskey, Kyle McCall, Chris Henry and Louis Ludik.
Three of those who crossed the whitewash - Henry, Ludik and McCloskey - were making their return from injury and they, along with Iain Henderson who was back after international duty, certainly gave Ulster an added tempo after the listless performances of October and November.
The showing was still far from perfect, and both yellow cards dished out to Kiss' side along with how Cardiff reeled back their visitors' substantial second-half lead will no doubt be getting some attention in this week's video review.
But still, having lost three league games in succession coming in, the result was of far greater importance than the performance on a day when Ulster lifted themselves into fifth place in the table.
On a ground where they have enjoyed considerable recent success over the province, Cardiff were on the back foot from the off but a quick turnover saw them earn a penalty and subsequently take the lead after five minutes via the boot of out-half Steve Shingler.
The hosts threatened again soon after but Piutau was able to cleverly marshal Tom James into touch when the Welsh wing looked set to take advantage of the space given to him on the left.
Indeed, despite the high-scoring finale, the game remained 3-0 until as late as the 25th minute when a moment of magic from man of the match Ruan Pienaar opened up the game.
The scrum-half, in the final season of a stellar Ulster career, showed great awareness of the available space to break around the outside and advance his side to within metres of the Cardiff line.
While he was stopped short, the Blues' USA international full-back Blaine Scully transgressed at the breakdown and was shown a yellow card.
Some 11 phases later, all after a more composed looking Brett Herron took the penalty quickly, Piutau rounded the corner and touched down under the posts.
Making the most of their numerical advantage, Ulster quickly exploited more gaps left in the Cardiff defensive line when McCloskey shrugged off some weak tackles to score on his return from a broken foot sustained against Glasgow in September.
And with half-time approaching, Pienaar was heavily involved again in Ulster's third.
Charging down his opposite number, just as he has done with such success throughout his Ulster career, didn't immediately bring reward when Scully got back to cover but the visiting pack swarmed over the ball.
When the turnover came, McCall was the beneficiary and he slipped over from close range for the second try of his career.
Ulster frustratingly failed to hold onto their 21-3 advantage until half-time as hooker Kristian Dacey, who was one of Cardiff's better players, scrambled over following a good period of ball retention just before the turn.
When Henderson was binned for a high tackle in the corner, Cardiff sensed a route back into the game, but Ulster's defence held firm with 14 men for the duration of their numerical disadvantage.
No sooner were Ulster back to a full complement than they were shown another yellow card, this time to Luke Marshall, but again Cardiff could not break through.
Indeed, this time Ulster even extended their lead.
The return of Henry was a big boost for Kiss, and the back-row unit seemed particularly effective for his comeback even if the anticipated battle with Sam Warburton didn't materialise when the 2013 Lions skipper took ill.
And, after good work from Pete Browne, the Malone man capped off his first game of the season with Ulster's bonus score, even if it took the TMO to confirm the grounding.
A period of slight panic ensued in the final 10 minutes when first Willis Halaholo and then Alex Cuthbert were allowed in for quick-fire tries, but substitute Ludik sealed the deal with a charge-down score.
With the Champions Cup double-header coming into focus, the PRO12 moves to the back-burner until Connacht visit Kingspan two days before Christmas.
Against a Clermont side still top of the table in France even after losing to Pau on Saturday, Ulster will need every drop of confidence they can take from this victory.
Cardiff Blues: B Scully; A Cuthbert, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, T James; S Shingler, L Williams; G Jenkins, K Dacey, T Filise; G Earle J Down; J Turnbull, E Jenkins, J Navidi.
Replacements: M Rees, R Gill (for Jenkins, 54), S Andrews (for Filse, 54) S Lewis-Hughes, M Cook (Down, 63), T Williams (for L Williams 68), N Robinson (for Shingler, 60), M Morgan (for James, 52).
Ulster: C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; B Herron, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst; P Browne, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy. Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 65), A Warwick (for McCall, 65), R Ah You (for Herbst,52), K Treadwell (for van der Merwe, 52), C Ross (for Gilroy, 72) P Marshall (for Herron, 60), L Ludik (for McCloskey, 68), D Cave (for L Marshall, 68).
Referee: A Brace (IRFU)
Man of the match: Ruan Pienaar