Ulster fall apart as Warriors turn on style
Glasgow 50 Ulster 20
An Ulster season from which few expected anything but ultimately promised much came to a meek close in Scotstoun last night, the undeniable sense in the air that this was just a game too far.
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On the night when the storied provincial careers of Rory Best and Darren Cave came to an end, the latter equalling Andrew Trimble's club appearance record, Dan McFarland's men were battered by a Glasgow side who will go on to contest a final in their home city against Munster or Leinster.
On this evidence, there remains a gulf between the improving visitors and this league's very best sides.
Leading from the third minute through to the final whistle, Dave Rennie's inhospitable hosts had far too much for Ulster, making light of any concerns that their three-week lay-off would leave them feeling rusty.
Instead they'd run in seven tries while racking up a half century of points against only 20 in return.
Ulster couldn't keep the ball and when Glasgow had it their speed at the breakdown rendered them lethal. In truth, it was all over bar the shouting by the interval.
It had never looked to be Ulster's night and they were in trouble virtually from the off.
Kyle Steyn made the first break after a bit of chaos from the kick-off and, while the likes of Best gamely tried to force a key breakdown turnover, Adam Hastings's showed a keen spatial awareness to fire the telling skip pass out to Ulster old boy Tommy Seymour.
With less than three minutes on the clock, there were still fans filing into the sold-out stadium as the scoreboard read 7-0.
Things seemed about to get worse soon after. The Ulster line-out, which had struggled so mightily on the last visit here, malfunctioned again and if not for an interception from Louis Ludik Glasgow would have been in for a second after a nice interchange between Sam Johnson and Hastings.
It was a temporary reprieve with Ulster unable to hold onto the ball. When Ludik was pinged for holding on and Glasgow broke to the blindside of a maul, the visitors looked to have the situation somewhat in hand but Ali Price slipped through the tackle of Iain Henderson and scored without needing DTH van der Merwe on his outside.
It wasn't quite yet make or break but when Ulster went for the corner from a five-metre penalty, the need for a shift in momentum was evident. Another lost line-out rendered the point moot. A Hastings penalty, awarded on Ulster's put-in to the scrum, dug the hole ever deeper.
A Glasgow infringement on the restart immediately brought it back to a two-score game but not without a scare, Stockdale looking decidedly uncomfortable in the aftermath. While the previously hamstrung wing soldiered on, Eric O'Sullivan wasn't so fortunate, the loosehead requiring a HIA, which he ultimately passed, eight minutes before the turn.
As half-time inched ever-nearer, the hosts went for the knock-out blow and, after an interminable set of reset scrums, it duly arrived with Rob Harley crashing over from close range.
Even the most ardent of the traveling supporter could not have clung to the hope that Ulster had simply played into a 21-point wind.
Instead the death of their season would be slow.
After a brief renaissance Glasgow kept their foot firmly to the floor, scoring two more tries - another for Seymour and one for Steyn - before the hour mark.
The only thing left for the sizeable visiting contingent to cheer was Cave's outing to equal the appearance record, replacing Luke Marshall. There was a try too, Marcell Coetzee forcing his way over in the corner but the result had long since ceased to be a matter of debate.
That would bring the curtain down on Best's Ulster's career, his last act the line-out throw just prior to the score with most of Scotstoun and a good chunk of the Glasgow side applauding the Ireland skipper from the field in his last PRO14 contest.
Replacements Peter Horne and Rob Herring traded scores, as did George Horne and Mike Lowry, but it was all academic by then.
It will hardly feel like it this morning but that Ulster were playing at all last night represents considerable progress.
The first year of the Dan McFarland project wasn't expected to yield results quickly, but a return to the knock-out stages of the league and a Champions Cup quarter-final represent the first tentative steps forward after a couple seasons worth of regression.
All done with an ever-expanding and youthful panel.
Three that played in Scotstoun - Eric O'Sullivan, Angus Kernohan and Lowry - had yet to play a minute of senior rugby this time last year, with a handful more in the same boat watching on from home or the stands.
In Glasgow they simply met a considerably better side, in-form and some ways further down the track.
Ulster move forward without two of their finest servants but, despite last night's thumping, they do so with optimism.
There'd have been long odds of that back when this season began.
GLASGOW: S Hogg; T Seymour, K Steyn, S Johnson, DTH van der Merwe; A Hastings, A Price; (1-8) J Bhatti, F Brown, Z Fagerson; S Cummings, J Gray; R Harley, C Gibbins (c), M Fagerson.
Replacements: G Stewart (for Brown, 56), O Kebble (for Bhatti, 52), D Rae (for Z Fagerson, 66), R Wilson (for Cummings, 56), T Gordon (for Gibbons, 69), G Horne (for Price, 61), P Horne (S Johnson, 59), H Jones (for van der Merwe, 69)
ULSTER: M Lowry; J Stockdale, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Best (c), R Kane, I Henderson, K Treadwell, N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Replacements: R Herring (for Best, 62), A Warwick (for O'Sullivan, 50), T O'Toole (for Kane, 50), A O'Connor (for Treadwell, 52), S Reidy (for Timoney, 49), D Shanahan (for Cooney, 47), D Cave (for Luke Marshall, 59), A Kernohan (for Stockdale, 69)
Referee: J Lacey (IRE)
Man of the Match: M Fagerson (Glasgow)