RaboDirect Pro12: No mercy shown by classy Ulster
Ulster 20 Cardiff Blues 3: Ulster sent out a clear message last night.
Last season was no one-off. They are on the march again. Ask Cardiff Blues, who arrived at Ravenhill as RaboDirect Pro12 series leaders, but left a well beaten side.
Ulster, who lay third in the table going into this one, saw off opponents who had been in pole position with a two-points lead over them by virtue of having banked a bonus in each of their opening matches.
But Ulster were unbeaten at Ravenhill in 2011, although Cardiff had won three of the rivals’ previous four encounters at the east-Belfast venue. With two such records and so much at stake, something had to give.
Even with the hosts minus nine on World Cup duty and the guests missing seven, the scene was set for a game of some importance. And Ulster were up for that.
The weather refused to co-operate and almost inevitably Jared Payne’s entrance for his first ever Friday night performance on the Ravenhill stage was into a vicious sheet of Aquinas-War Memorial rain. Welcome to Belfast.
Undeterred, Ulster — with the rain behind them — opened with a flourish, taking the game to the Welsh from the off.
Ian Humphreys was well wide with a second minute penalty from just inside the guests’ 10-metre line, but two minutes later he landed a simpler kick from inside the 22 to give Ulster a 3-0 lead.
The Kiwi full-back made himself at home at once, calling the defensive shots, ensuring that wingers Craig Gilroy and Ian Whitten were where they needed to be.
Ulster continued to dominate both territorially and in terms of possession.
Humphreys had opportunities in the 17th and 20th minutes to translate his side’s superiority into further points, but he was uncharacteristically wayward with two penalty attempts.
Of course, the frequent award of penalties against Cardiff by Welsh referee James Jones meant the game was stop-start in nature.
But Ulster, to their credit, were trying to play, despite the handling handicap imposed by the wet ball coupled with their visitors’ negativity. And in the final 10 minutes of the first half they got their reward for their desire to serve up good rugby with Darren Cave scoring a splendid brace of tries. Turbo-charged Gilroy takes much of the credit for the first of the first of the pair, for having come across from right to left it was his surge which did the damage to the Cardiff defence, enabling Cave to apply the finish with Humphreys converting to make it 10-0.
Cave delivered another body-blow, coming onto the ball at pace and from a great angle to slide home. Once again Humphreys added the extras and the Pro 12 leaders found themselves 17 points adrift.
In truth they had not threatened up until that point and when, close to half-time, they finally did by virtue of a break-out after Ulster spilled the ball on the Cardiff 22, Cave’s centre partner Nevin Spence got back brilliantly to win the ball on the ground, thereby denying them.
The two-try hero was withdrawn at the break after suffering a slight leg injury, with Adam D’Arcy deputising.
Cardiff now were playing with the elements, but Ulster refused to bow or compromise on their commitment as to how the game should be played.
Three times they drove their opponents back in the loose and with Spence increasingly involved — his clever kicking into space in addition to his line-breaking running was a massive plus — they began to dictate.
Loosehead Declan Fitzpatrick’s withdrawal and Paddy McAllister’s introduction was promptly followed by a yellow card for Xavier Rush when he obstructed home scrum-half Paul Marshall.
Cardiff then went through the phases close to the home line but the defence held firm before demoralising the Welsh further by turning over their possession and clearing almost to half-way from under their own posts.
A full 70 minutes had gone before Cardiff broke their duck when fly-half Ceri Sweeney landed a well-struck long-range penalty.
Humphreys, holding his left arm in discomfort, gave way to Paddy Jackson and the Dungannon youngster added his name to scoresheet with a late penalty.