Ulster's season hits breaking point
Scarlets 16-13 Ulster
Ulster's misery shows no sign of abating as they began 2017 in the same manner as they saw off the old year with another, though this time controversial, defeat to do further damage to their PRO12 play-off hopes.
Ulster put in a huge first half performance in appalling conditions at Parc y Scarlets only for them to lose their momentum and then the game via a controversial high tackle decision and the awarding of a penalty try via the new rules brought in this week.
Italian referee Marius Mitrea made the call just after the hour which saw Sean Reidy yellow-carded and a penalty try awarded to the home side after the Ulster number eight was adjudged to have taken Aled Davies high to prevent him scoring as he ducked low over the line.
Even though the excellent Iain Henderson held Davies up, Mitrea consulted the TMO and, seemingly invoking the new zero tolerance high tackle laws, awarded a penalty try and sent Reidy to the bin.
It was a huge call and cost Ulster the game.
And even though Jake Ball was shown yellow shortly afterwards for a high hit on Clive Ross, which was also thought to be dangerous, there was no way back for Ulster who left with a losing bonus point while racking up their seventh defeat in all competitions from their last 11 games.
Ulster scored all their points in what was a tremendously disciplined first 40 minutes through a Jacob Stockdale try along with a Paddy Jackson conversion and two penalties which saw them lead 13-6.
But, even with Rory Best and Henderson shining, they couldn't replicate that opening half and the Scarlets, with a stronger bench, claimed the four points.
Ulster put in a tremendously committed opening half and led at the turnaround after digging deep in terrible conditions.
Even though Jackson's error when he had a kick charged down nearly resulted in an early score for Dan Evans, Ulster kept their composure and scored the only try of the half through Stockdale.
The Scarlets drew first blood when Jones - making his first start of the league campaign - landed a ninth minute penalty after Best was pinged at a ruck.
Another chance for the home side followed three minutes later after Callum Black failed to release a player at a ruck and Jones again added the three points.
In the conditions, Ulster needed to respond and on 16 minutes Ball's high tackle on Ludik - which was considered accidental - saw Jackson land an impressive strike to make it 6-3 to the Scarlets.
That became 10-6 to Ulster four minutes later with Stockdale's well-worked try having its genesis in a scrum turnover won by the visitors in their own half.
From the ensuing lineout, deep in Scarlets territory, Ulster mauled and then Paul Marshall released Stuart McCloskey whose strength took out three defenders and his off-load to an unmarked Stockdale saw the winger romp over near the posts allowing Jackson to convert.
The Welsh responded with Liam Williams making ground down the right but Ulster's scramble defence held firm as it did again on the half hour when Jackson's hit on Jonathan Davies forced a knock-on.
But Ulster kept play in Scarlets territory as the half drew to a close and won a hard-earned penalty.
It was tricky enough, out on the right, but Jackson made no mistake and Ulster left the field with a spring in their step on the back of a 13-6 lead.
On the resumption, Ulster started where they had left off with a great kick-chase won by Trimble nearly leading to a breakthrough only for Best to lose the ball in the conditions.
Stockdale did likewise shortly afterwards but the early siege was only lifted by the home side after Best was penalised for not releasing.
Even so, Ulster stole the subsequent lineout only for Paul Marshall to have his kick charged down though, again, they managed to do enough to keep the Scarlets at bay.
However, the Welsh then won a lineout turnover and suddenly they launched themselves into Ulster's 22 where Ross Kane was penalised and Jones nailed the the 52nd minute penalty.
The errors, worryingly, just kept creeping into Ulster's game and Henderson was then pinged for not releasing and Evans put the ball into the corner.
The Scarlets mauled and Aled Davies broke blind and a combination of Reidy and Henderson held him up only for referee Mitrea to look at a high tackle and not only bin the Ulster number eight but also award a penalty try to give the Scarlets the lead.
Evans converted to put them 16-13 up and the Scarlets were then also reduced to 14 with Ball departing.
Ulster came again though, with big and direct carrying from Best and McCloskey only for replacement Dave Shanahan to lose the ball as the visitors tried to power over near the posts.
Jackson surged through but couldn't get the ball to Shanahan and Ulster's night began to fall apart. It ended with the visitors unable to get position.
Another grim night in Llanelli for Ulster.
SCARLETS: J McNicholl, L Williams, Jonathan Davies, H Parkes, S Evans; D Jones, G Davies; R Evans, K Owens (capt), W Kruger; J Ball, T Price; L Rawlins, James Davies, J Barclay.
Subs: W Boyde for Rawlins 35mins, A Davies for G Davies half-time, R Elias for Owens and W Jones for Kruger both 68mins, S Hughes for L Williams 73mins
Yellow cards: J Ball 62-72mins
ULSTER: L Ludik; A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Best, R Kane; K Treadwell, I Henderson; C Ross, C Henry, S Reidy.
Subs: A Warwick for Black 50mins, D Shanahan for P Marshall 53mins, J Simpson for Kane 57mins, P Browne for Treadwell 62mins, T Bowe for Stockdale 73mins, F van der Merwe for Ross 75mins
Referee: M Mitrea (Italy).
Yellow cards: Reidy 61-71mins