Rob Herring shines light on Ulster's mistakes after Scarlets defeat
Scarlets 22-12 Ulster
Ulster's trip to west Wales yielded no return on Saturday afternoon as a superior Scarlets team led from start to finish and came away with a 22-12 win.
On any other day, the hosts' lack of discipline surely would have been a major issue but, despite Wayne Pivac's side being shown three yellow cards, Ulster could do little with half an hour's worth of numerical advantage and indeed were outscored during the period.
Ulster's points came courtesy of a Rory Scholes score and a converted penalty try but, when seemingly set for at least the consolation of a losing bonus point, a last kick of the game penalty from substitute out-half Aled Thomas ensured it was to be a wholly fruitless afternoon.
In truth, it was a fitting end to a stuttering showing that was punctuated with basic mistakes that robbed Neil Doak's side of momentum.
Handling errors, ill-discipline and a wayward kicking game were always likely to make life difficult but it was at the breakdown where stand-in captain Rob Herring felt the game was lost.
"We knew coming into the game that they have some really good breakdown threats and we saw last week how they were able to take the life out of Glasgow," he reflected.
"We emphasised it during the week but I think that's the area where we really let ourselves down. They got on the ball quite a bit and we were sloppy, dropping the ball a bit in the 22.
"We took the pressure off them and put it on ourselves."
On the Thomas penalty that gave Scarlets their 10-point winning margin, he added: "It's disappointing, especially after them getting that kick over and taking all the points away from us.
"We had knock-on advantage and tried to overplay a bit to fight back for the draw but it obviously came down to the breakdown again."
Ulster trailed after just three minutes when Wiehahn Herbst gave away a penalty and the young Dan Jones punished the error.
With poor kicking, all too often aimlessly directed into the middle of the park, putting the province under pressure, it seemed only a matter of time before they conceded further and only a last-ditch Scholes tackle prevented Tom Williams, in as a replacement for Michael Tagicakibau, from touching down.
Ulster's lineout, again accurate throughout with Franco van der Merwe to the fore, produced an opportunity but what was one of nine first-half handling errors curtailed the progress of what had been a sharp set-move.
Scarlets scored again soon after as, with Ulster's exit play once again lacking, a Jones penalty after a failure to roll away doubled the advantage before a collapsed maul offered the chance for a nine-point lead.
With Peter Edwards having ignored the referee's prior warning to his side over no arm tackles, the prop was shown yellow just before the half-time whistle.
Stuart McCloskey - Ulster's most impressive player for the second week running - could not fully punish the transgression thanks to a wayward effort off the tee.
Those expecting an improvement from last season's semi-finalists after the turn had their hopes quickly dashed when, shortly after Peter Browne had been let off the hook for a needless penalty concession, the 14 men of the Scarlets scored their only try of the day.
With Ulster's defensive line ragged, Jones and Gareth Owens combined to release Hadleigh Parkes to score.
Jones added the extras as Edwards returned but the numerical parity only lasted a further seven minutes.
This time it was John Barclay who was binned, the Scot blatantly in at the side, and from the resulting scrum Ulster got on the board when Scholes, starting due to Andrew Trimble's hip flexor strain, finished well after taking Paul Marshall's pass.
In the absence of Barclay, Parkes was forced into the back-row at the scrum and, for an Ulster pack that was pinged five times a week ago, two penalties against a set-piece containing a winger masquerading as a loose forward was hardly the desired statement.
Jones' boot punished the indiscretion to make it 19-5.
When Andrew Brace awarded a penalty try for the hauling down of an Ulster maul, and gave Scarlets a third yellow for the second week in succession, there were eight minutes remaining and a repeat of last year's dramatic draw was a possibility.
A Luke Marshall knock-on halted the most promising attack however and one final breakdown penalty, this time Peter Nelson whistled for holding on, ensured not even a solitary point would be brought back to Belfast.
Without a game until October 2, there is plenty of time for work on the training paddock but the early indications that last season's travel sickness is still an issue will be a cause for concern.
SCARLETS: S Evans, H Parkes, R King, G Owen, T Williams, D Jones, A Davies; P John, E Phillips, P Edwards,T Price, L Rawlins, A Shingler, J Davies, J Barclay (captain).
Replacements: K Myhill (for Phillips), R Evans (for John, 62), W Taylor (for Price, 40), G Earle (for Rawlins, 51), R Pitman (for Barclay, 76), K Hardy, A Thomas (for Jones, 76), I Nicholas.
Ulster: L Ludik, C Gilroy, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Scholes, P Nelson, P Marshall; A Warwick, R Herring (Captain), W Herbst, P Browne, F Van der Merwe, R Wilson, W Faloon, N Williams.
Replacements: J Andrew, C Black (for Warwick, 57), R Lutton (for Herbst, 65), R Diack (for Browne, 57), C Ross (for Wilson, 57), D Shanahan, S Arnold (for Scholes, 79), D Busby.
Match rating: 5/10
Man of the match: Aaron Shingler - The blindside flanker was a menace at the breakdown and carried effectively.