RaboDirect Pro12: Ulster face huge festive test
Ulster 24 Scarlets 17: Ulster's 24-17 victory over Scarlets on Friday night was step one of December's five-step survival programme.
A sixth defeat in the 10th outing of the series realistically would have scuppered any faint chance of a top four finish and a place in the play-off semi-finals come May.
And victory was essential not only to help their Pro12 prospects but to ensure that they went into the forthcoming back-to-back Heineken Cup meetings with Aironi on a positive note, too.
To that extent it translates as success.
But let’s not get carried away, even though there was optimistic post-match talk of bonus point wins over the Italians at Ravenhill this Friday night and at the Stadio Brianteo the following Saturday and, as a result, a place at the head of the Pool 4 Christmas table.
One suspects Leicester and Clermont may have something to say about that.
Those forthcoming dates with the Rowland Phillips-coached Italians are steps two and three of the December programme and once through those Ulster will then face a traditional festive-season inter-pro double against Pro12 leaders, Leinster, at the RDS on Boxing Day, followed on December 30 by a head-to-head with defending champions, Munster, in Belfast.
If Brian McLaughlin’s men manage to emerge from that schedule with home and away bonus point wins over Aironi, a first win in Dublin for 12 years and
Munster’s prized scalp they will have had quite a Christmas.
But if they are to have any chance of chalking up what would indeed be an incredible Yuletide sequence, they will be required to show better form than was the case against Scarlets.
For whilst they won, in truth Ulster made hard work of beating a side minus five star players called up by Wales for Saturday afternoon’s Millennium Stadium re-run of the 2011 World Cup third-fourth place play-off.
In contrast, Ulster were able to welcome back World Cup-winning prop John Afoa and Ireland’s Rory Best and Stephen Ferris. They certainly made a difference.
“I thought our set scrum was excellent,” coach McLaughlin enthused. “And we got a couple of good mauls and drives going, so we can build on that. There were a lot of positives”
A number of those were provided by Best and Ferris, both of whom were outstanding. So, too, was scrum-half Paul Marshall who
served up another top-notch display before making way for fit-again Ruan Pienaar.
Marshall has made a real case for himself during Pienaar’s hamstring injury-enforced absence, a point McLaughlin himself made when he said: “Paul was excellent. And obviously when you’ve got someone like Ruan Pienaar on your bench there’s going to be a lot of talking this week.
“We’ll decide what to do on Friday night (against Aironi) but certainly Paul has held his hand up in both European games as well as tonight and you have to give him credit.” He was a lot less satisfied with Ulster’s defence, however.
Small wonder, for the guests were given a couple of early gifts in the form of soft, first-quarter tries for wings Sean Lamont and Iongi Viliami. And they were handed a third in the closing stages when number eight Kieran Murphy touched down, leaving Stephen Jones to convert for a losing bonus.
“Probably the area we will look at will be our defence,” McLaughlin said after witnessing those lapses. “Defensively we have been rock-solid throughout the season but tonight we were a little bit lazy at times.” Ulster — having given their guests a two-try start — replied with a 24-point salvo courtesy of an Ian Humphreys penalty and a Ferris try before the break and, after it, three further Humphreys goals and the conversion of Ferris’s second touchdown.
Thus they racked up two dozen unanswered points and led 24-10 before Murphy’s late score.
So, step one taken and now four more massive ones await before the turn of the year.