Ulster's inspirational display a fitting tribute to Nevin Spence's memory
Ulster 27 Scarlets 20
On an emotionally charged evening at Kingspan Stadium, Ulster produced a fitting tribute to their former team-mate Nevin Spence with a rousing win over the PRO14 champions.
Playing on the fifth anniversary of the day Nevin, along with his father Noel and brother Graham, passed away, the province produced their most impressive win since Clermont visited back in December of last year, temporarily storming to the top of Conference B after plenty of late drama at Kingspan Stadium.
Having dominated proceedings but only managed to come away with penalties, Ulster seemed set to rue their missed opportunities when a late barrage of points had the home side trailing by three points with only 10 minutes remaining.
But, even without the likes of Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Jared Payne, Marcell Coetzee, and Jean Deysel, there were late heroics in store as John Andrew finished off a fine move near the end.
With Scarlets arriving as league champions and winners of nine in a row dating back to last season’s run to the title, optimism was in short supply in the build-up with more than one in the home camp admitting they were facing the rarity of being underdogs in their own stadium.
In the first 10 minutes, the signs were certainly ominous.
With Wayne Pivac’s men always looking to test Ulster out wide, and discipline at the breakdown lacking early on from Kiss’s men, the Scarlets had quickly developed a stranglehold on possession and took the lead when the boot of Leigh Halfpenny punished Luke Marshall’s side entry at the ruck.
Deprived of plenty of ballast without Coetzee and Deysel, Ulster struggled for linebreaks but a barrage of expertly measured touchfinders into the right corner for Christian Leali’ifano had Scarlets playing from deep.
The boot of John Cooney restored parity with a quarter of an hour gone and, for the remainder of the half, Ulster were banging on the door without managing to force their way through.
A dangerous rolling maul looked set to go over, but when Louis Ludik was held up, Scarlets were punished only with a penalty for pulling it down.
Cooney again split the posts to give his side the lead and he had another chance only minutes after when Gareth Davies was pinged for not releasing when Leali’ifano hared upfield.
The former Connacht man’s strike kept the scoreboard ticking, but with too many passes not sticking, Ulster will have headed for the sheds at half-time with a touch of frustration that their lead was only six points.
A late tackle on Leali’ifano was punished by a penalty as Ulster went for the corner, the pressure eventually resulting in Cooney’s fourth successful effort off the tee.
With a considerably more experienced bench, Pivac was soon calling for the replacements, including Lions man of the series Jonathan Davies and they made it a one-score game as the final quarter approached with a second Halfpenny penalty. And on the hour mark, Ulster were hit with a clinical counter-attack.
Scarlets pounced on a loose pass through the pacy Steff Evans and, in an instant, Hadleigh Parkes had stepped inside Leali’ifano and Rhys Patchell sent Evans underneath the posts.
In what had been a game dominated by defences, it took only three minutes for the game’s second try to arrive, this time powerful work from Stuart McCloskey opening things up and Sean Reidy kept a cool head to release Stockdale to score.
With shape becoming increasingly lacking, Ulster began to shoot out of the line with abandon and, as Scarlets shovelled the ball wide to avoid the incoming big hits, there was suddenly acres of space for Evans to exploit again and Jonathan Davies was on hand to provide the straightforward finish.
With 10 minutes remaining, Ulster faced a serious test of both their character and silverware aspirations for the coming season.
Such questions were answered emphatically.
With Cooney (right) having made way for Paul Marshall, Leali’ifano took on kicking duties but wasn’t fazed by the magnitude of his first effort of the night, drawing Ulster level to set up the dramatic finish.
It still looked as if Scarlets could sour the evening for the vociferous home crowd, but Luke Marshall’s choke tackle turnover set a platform for Ulster to attack.
Still with plenty to do and pinned inside their own half, McCloskey again went to work and for the second time in the final throes of the contest, his offload opened up the opposition.
With Tommy Bowe taking the ball at pace, he found Paul Marshall who skipped forward before being dragged out of action.
With the nine gone, his namesake Luke shouldered the responsibility and was first to the breakdown.
With Scarlets incredibly narrow, the centre showed his distribution skills with a looping miss pass out to the lurking Andrew.
The wide grin on the hooker’s face before he even crossed the whitewash told the story.
Even if it feels like there have been two few of these nights over the past 12 months, Ulster can reflect on their most impressive win of 2017.
Early days, but top spot in the Conference B this morning has certainly been very hard earned.
Ulster: L Ludik, A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Leali'ifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst; K Treadwell, A O'Connor; M Rea, C Henry (capt), S Reidy. Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 57), A Warwick, R Ah You (for Herbst, 71), R Diack (for Treadwell, 57), C Ross (for Henry, 63), P Marshall (for Cooney, 70), P Nelson (for Stockdale, 71), T Bowe (for Ludik, 51)
Scarlets: L Halfpenny; J McNicholl, H Parkes, S Williams, S Evans; R Patchell, G Davies; R Evans, K Owens (capt), S Lee, J Ball, T Beirne; A Shingler, W Boyde, J Barclay. Replacements: R Elias, W Jones(for Owens 66), W Kruger (for Lee, 57), D Bulbring (for Ball, 53), J Macleod, J Evans (for Davies, 53), R Jones, J Davies (for Williams 53)
Referee: Marius Mitrea (ITA)
Man of the Match: Stuart McCloskey
Belfast Telegraph Digital