Ulster still not close to hitting top gear, says McFarland
Ulster's Friday night win over Cardiff Blues will hardly be a lengthy lodger in the memory for those who turned out to watch two stuttering sides go at it on an evening when the damp and cold largely had the better of things.
Rugby round up Newsletter
Of course Ulster won 23-14 - and in doing so stretched their unbeaten run at the Kingspan to 13 games in all competitions since last October's loss to Connacht - but that's about as much as can be said after Dan McFarland's side pocketed four points.
As at the Kings, they started brightly enough against a Blues side led by former Ulster cult hero Nick Williams - whose powers looked to have somewhat diminished - and then, as in Port Elizabeth, things began to get a bit ragged and never fully recovered in an off-colour second half.
At 17-0 ahead after just 20 minutes, with tries from Luke Marshall and skipper Billy Burns, Ulster essentially fell out with themselves and mostly lost touch with their game management, accuracy and discipline to allow the Blues access to both the game and scoreboard.
A case in point was the Blues' second try just before the hour.
The score stood at 20-7 - thanks to Aled Summerhill's somewhat controversial 42nd-minute converted try which had then been quickly followed by John Cooney's second penalty - and Ulster were clearly struggling to get the ball when Will Addison, in his first game for the province since January, showed some dazzling footwork to try and weave his way out of danger.
But at the breakdown, Ulster lost possession and the Blues, realising that there was no full-back at home, hoofed the ball into the 22.
Cooney failed to snaffle the bobbling ball and winger Jason Harries got it and though he was hauled down just short by Louis Ludik and Mattie Rea, Cardiff recycled and gave it width out left with Will Boyde able to run in unopposed. The conversion made it 20-14.
And that wasn't all. After Ulster had put a little more daylight on the scoreboard at 23-14, thanks to another penalty from Cooney, Marcell Coetzee, who made 21 carries and 15 tackles, won a jackal penalty.
The ball was kicked to the corner and from there Ulster tried to maul but were turned over again, whether legally or not, and the ball was cleared.
The two vignettes summed up the majority of Ulster's evening, their decent stuff being undone by an inability to follow up with consistent work though the Blues doubtless felt the same about themselves.
Afterwards, McFarland could hardly mask his sense of frustration at this laboured win which had seen Ulster cough up 12 penalties.
"Naturally at the start of the season the standard of your performance isn't where you want it to be and they certainly aren't for us," he admitted, naturally, expressing some pleasure, or relief, after making it a third win in four games.
"That means we've got to be exacting and if the euphoria of winning games clouds your judgment in how you assess your team's performance you're going to come unstuck pretty quickly.
"We tried to play a bit much but it was our discipline that led to Luke (Marshall) getting the yellow card (in the 39th minute) that was really the problem."
Well, it was and it wasn't. Ulster just entirely fell off where they needed to be and now know that this week, with Zebre at home even after the Italians lost just 3-0 when hosting Leinster, they must rediscover themselves.
As Billy Burns said: "It's about taking our learnings forward for Zebre and hopefully we can put all that out on the park for another positive result."
Results: Munster 28 Ospreys 12; Ulster 23 Cardiff Blues 14; Dragons 18 Glasgow 5; Benetton 36 Kings 30; Connacht 24 Cheetahs 22; Zebre 0 Leinster 3 ; Edinburgh 46 Scarlets 7