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Ulster alive and kicking after Euro win over Scarlets


Falling down: Ulster winger Craig Gilroy is brought to ground during Saturday night’s European win over the Scarlets

Falling down: Ulster winger Craig Gilroy is brought to ground during Saturday night’s European win over the Scarlets

Falling down: Ulster winger Craig Gilroy is brought to ground during Saturday night’s European win over the Scarlets

So, it's game on again. Staring down the barrel at effective elimination after two straight defeats, Ulster produced not only their first win but also garnished this muscular effort with an all-important bonus point as well.

Whether it remains enough to realistically mount a challenge to finish in the upper reaches of Pool Three remains to be seen but things have certainly altered after Leicester Tigers defeated Toulon yesterday with Ulster now just three points behind the French side, who bagged a vital losing bonus and still lead, and two adrift of the second-placed Tigers.

The main thing for Ulster though is that the five points were secured and that Neil Doak and his squad can now head towards Llanelli on Sunday to complete their double-header against the Scarlets in good heart if not in quite robust shape.

And while it is only proper to give credit where it is due in what was an attritional encounter, but one where Ulster still managed to carve out four tries in difficult conditions, a considerable amount of the sheen from this result looked to have already been largely removed after five of the home side's players were forced off the field.

Wiehahn Herbst and Nick Williams hobbled off at different times with apparent hamstring damage in the second half while Franco van der Merwe looked pretty shaky after a head clash with Williams and Stuart McCloskey departed with an elbow problem after coming on for Stuart Olding who didn't reappear after half-time and ended the opening 40 minutes with a heavily bandaged head.

Both Olding and Van der Merwe are believed to be undergoing return to playing protocols after picking up concussive issues.

To lose any of these players - and it would seen inevitable that some, if not all, may have to sit out next Sunday - would be hugely damaging.

Other areas which will come under scrutiny will include Ian Humphreys' kicking from the tee - he managed just two from six - and the lineouts where Ulster coughed up five off their own throw as well as the number of turnovers conceded (18 against 13 shipped by the Scarlets) though on a difficult enough night there might be some mitigation here.

Leaving all that aside, though, this was still an intelligent display from Ulster with three of their scores shaped from first phase plays and an ideal way to welcome back Ruan Pienaar as he gave us our initial glimpse of him this season and, typically, was on hand to grab a try and help assist Tommy Bowe over the third of the night.

It ended with a late yellow card for the South African after a deliberate knock-on which did put Ulster further under the cosh, but when it really mattered the home side's seven man pack managed to win a scrum penalty and clear their lines.

Indeed, it had been Ulster who had given the Scarlets an object lesson in how to reap reward from playing against a side one man down and it was essentially the key to this game as with flanker James Davies binned after 11 minutes for taking Humphreys out, the home side racked up 14 unanswered points.

These came thanks to Darren Cave's opening score, courtesy of a wonderful skip pass by Humphreys to Bowe who then lobbed it back inside to the centre which was then followed by the out-half sending Cave barrelling through the middle before he fed the supporting Pienaar who wriggled through to dot down after some truly awful Scarlets defending.

So, by the time Davies returned the scoreline had swung from having been 3-0 to the Scarlets to now reading 14-3 for Ulster. As it turned out, it was ground the visitors just couldn't make up.

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Though the Scarlets did then knuckle down and even stubbornly refused to yield any more points, with Liam Williams also binned for an apparent tip tackle on Louis Ludik, before ultimately narrowing the lead to just 14-9 with Rhys Priestland's third penalty in the 55th minute, it was Ulster who grabbed that all-important next score.

This time Bowe got his reward for forcing a knock-on in the Scarlets' 22. From a steady scrum, Pienaar broke right and performed a neat wrap-around with Ulster's first try scorer Darren Cave before giving the winger just enough time to hit the corner.

Humphreys missed the admittedly difficult conversion but leading 19-9 at the hour mark was a tremendous psychological boost and gave Ulster the momentum and belief to take the game and push on for the crucial bonus which came in the 68th minute when skipper Rory Best burrowed over after a lineout maul had surged over the Scarlets line.

Maximum points delivered then, but now it's a waiting game - on Ulster's injuries and on how this group will unfold if Ulster repeat the dose at Parcy Scarlets.

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