Belfast Telegraph

Euro bonus means there is still hope for Ulster

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster's players were never going to admit it, but Saturday night's bonus point win over Scarlets at a wet and windy Kingspan Stadium was the minimum requirement if they were to keep their slim hopes of making the Champions Cup quarter-finals alive.

The fourth try didn't arrive until the 68th minute, Rory Best touching down following a rolling maul that was willed over by forwards and backs alike, to add to previous scores from Darren Cave, Ruan Pienaar and Tommy Bowe.

Ulster had not won in Europe since beating the Leicester Tigers at Welford Road back in January and Best's touchdown ensured that an encouraging performance was not lost in the frustration of failing to net a maximum return.

Another eye-catching outing from Cave in the 13 jersey snared the outside centre his second man-of-the-match award in three weeks but there were also impressive outings from Callum Black, Bowe, Craig Gilroy and Roger Wilson.

The returns of Pienaar and Dan Tuohy from their respective injury troubles will have been a huge relief to head coach Neil Doak and both contributed strongly despite their lengthy spells on the sidelines.

Tuohy offered an all action display that saw him carry the ball more than any other Ulster player while, when the lineout functioned, it was more often than not the Ireland lock who was claiming the ball.

Any concerns about durability on his return, he had to go the full distance after Franco van der Merwe was lost to injury, were dispelled early on when he bounced straight back to his feet after a sizeable hit from the physical Michael Tagicakibau.

The health of Pienaar's knee has virtually become of national concern over recent months and the return of the classy Springbok to the scrum-half position coincided with one of the Ulster backline's better performances of the season.

Despite the poor conditions there was more zip to their play than in recent weeks while Bowe's try, off a nice loop move, was a reminder of what this unit is capable of when close to full strength.

While the end result was exactly what Doak will have wanted, there will still be some areas of Ulster's game being analysed with forensic intensity during today's review.

The team are aware that an 80 minute game will soon be an imperative and yet, after another promising start, they once again failed to score in the game's third quarter.

Since Bowe's try just shy of the hour mark against Leicester Tigers in the last round of European fixtures, Ulster have been outscored 36-8 in the 20 minutes directly following half-time.

The absence of Chris Henry thanks to his heart troubles, and the departure of Sean Doyle last summer, have left the side playing without a genuine openside flanker and Scarlets' ability to force turnovers at the breakdown was clear while the home side also lost five of their own lineouts.

Of the utmost concern will be the injury toll however after no less than five players were forced from the field.

With Irish international quintet Andrew Trimble, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Jared Payne and Chris Henry already out, if the knocks suffered by Stuart Olding, Wiehahn Herbst, van der Merwe, Nick Williams and Stuart McCloskey prove to be serious, it would be a massive blow.

An eight-day turnaround before the trip to Llanelli offers time to regroup and assess the issues but Neil Doak will be aware that Wayne Pivac's men are a wholly different proposition when playing in West Wales.

In the year 2014, Scarlets have won only twice while playing on the road, putting Ulster's achievements on Saturday into some kind of perspective, but they are still very much a formidable outfit at home.

The only teams to win at the Parc y Scarlets during the same time frame are Harlequins and Northampton but Ulster will know that they need to add themselves to that list if their most recent efforts aren't to be rendered redundant.

A minor miracle is still required but Ulster have at least now taken the first step of the journey.

Belfast Telegraph


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