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Ulster's slaying of Dragons does not leave Euro pain in the past

Slaying dragons reveals little about Ulster's response to double setback

Jonathan Bradley

If Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt had been in a less benevolent mood last week, then Stuart Olding may not have been released to take part in Ulster's game with the Dragons on Saturday night.

Having spent the week at Carton House preparing for the autumn internationals, and going through the return to play protocols after a blow to his head sustained against Toulon in the previous game, it had not been expected that Olding would be made available.

As it turned out, Ulster were mightily relieved to have their 21-year-old rising star back in the ranks after it was his brace of tries that provided the spark in a 23-6 victory.

Starting at fullback, having already featured at out-half and his preferred position of inside centre this season, the academy product provided the best moment of the game after half an hour when he ran onto Darren Cave's pass and swatted away would-be tackles before touching down.

Coming shortly after a pair of Paddy Jackson penalties, the try put Ulster in command of a game that, despite their domination of possession, had remained scoreless until the 26th minute.

There was more to come after the break when, following Stuart McCloskey's excellent flick out to the right wing, Olding did well to finish in the corner before being forced into touch by Angus O'Brien.

While there was still over half an hour remaining at that point, the home side did not score again until substitute prop Declan Fitzpatrick barrelled his way over in the final play of the game.

Despite securing the win that was required to lift Ulster back above Munster and into third place in the standings, there remained a lingering frustration at the final whistle given that four points always looked like the minimum expected return against struggling opposition.

It may have been the night after Halloween but the visitors provided little to scare Ulster and a pair of penalties from out-half O'Brien were all that they could muster over the 80 minutes.

In conditions that had left the turf sodden, and had supporters rushing for cover just prior to kick-off, perhaps the Welsh region's limited gameplan was to be expected but, much like Edinburgh last month, it never seemed likely to yield much in the way of reward.

Content to send their forwards thumping into contact, they rarely threatened Ulster's line and it was only profligacy on the part of Neil Doak's men that kept the scoreline as close as it was.

After Olding's second touchdown had raised hopes of a bonus point, Cave - whose rueful shake of the head during an earlier TMO review revealed that he has no future as a poker player - could have scored had he not dropped Ricky Andrew's pass.

Andrew was then left waiting on the wing when Ian Humphreys should have sent him over only to pass the ball into touch and, in the closing minutes, three five metre lineouts yielded turnovers rather than scores.

Having suffered successive defeats in the Champions Cup to Leicester and Toulon, Ulster may be satisfied simply to get back to winning ways but, after much criticism over the last week, Saturday revealed little about how they have responded to the dual setback.

Against a weak side, and without arguably two thirds of their starting XV, there is little to be gained from reading too much into the performance.

A two-week break looms before the visit of table-topping Ospreys but, again, both sides will be without a host of frontline players thanks to international requirements.

Disappointingly, that means what should be a much-anticipated battle between the league's first and third placed sides is instead a test of squad depth.

Indeed, with the returning internationals likely to be gradually re-introduced to the side ahead of the interpro fixture with Munster the following week, it may be the European double-header with Scarlets before we see something close to a full-strength Ulster side.

Then, and only then, therefore will we see how they have been affected by the disappointments of recent weeks.

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