RaboDirect Pro12: Ulster fail to spark in Dragons’ den
Dragons 22 Ulster 9: A costly 10-minute spell without sin-binned centre Nevin Spence proved to be Ulster’s undoing last night at Rodney Parade.
A second successive defeat at the hands of Welsh opponents made it a bad six days and left Ulster wondering how they now get themselves back on the rails.
With each of the Dragons’ three defeats in their opening four matches of the series having been at the hands of Irish opponents — Munster, Leinster and Connacht beat them in Cork, Dublin and Galway respectively — Brian McLaughlin’s men were keen to complete an Emerald Isle cleansweep.
They never looked like doing so.
Against Ospreys, who beat them 32-14, the Ulster scrum had been a major cause for concern, as was their indiscipline.
Physically they had been blown away in Swansea and they knew they could ill-afford any repetition. But this was another error-strewn showing.
Initially Ulster’s start — with blindside Pedrie Wannenburg to the fore — suggested they were in the mood and within five minutes they had the lead when fly-half Paddy Jackson popped over a simple penalty. Encouraging.
Two minutes later, however, they were pegged back by Jackson’s opposite number, Jason Tovey, who replied in kind. What a night he was to have.
In between those two penalties Craig Gilroy hit Mike Poole with a shuddering tackle which again suggested Ulster commitment. But it was a third winger — debutant Tonderai Chavhanga —who brought the Rodney Parade patrons to their feet with a mazy, turbo-charged run from his own 22 following a lax cross-kick.
Ulster were struggling and a 19th minute penalty, conceded by the offside Willie Faloon, enabled Tovey to give the hosts a 6-3 lead. They never lost it.
Ulster had a chance to reply at once but careless hands saw it squandered.
Then a sloppy pass by Luke Marshall was promptly followed by a yellow card for Nevin Spence following a high tackle on Chavhanga.
And Dragons immediately took advantage of the extra man with a lovely dart through the gap in midfield by centre, Tom Riley. Tovey’s judged the difficult conversion to perfection and with 25 minutes gone, Ulster trailed 13-3.
Jackson had a penalty opportunity to trim three points off that deficit but was wide with his 27th minute attempt. Tovey had no such problems five minutes later; his kick was spot-on and the differential grew to 13 points at 16-3.
Ulster had paid dearly for Spence’s time in the sin bin, conceding 10 points and the centre’s timely return coincided with Jackson’s second penalty success from three attempts.
That, however, was cancelled out by Tovey who, almost on the stroke of half-time, took his pre-interval tally to 14 points.
Ulster needed a good start on the resumption and having survived an opening salvo by the hosts they made an excellent break through Luke Marshall who combined delightfully with Chris Henry and Nevin Spence.
It came to nothing, and minutes later they were dealt another huge blow when the flawless Tovey added his fifth penalty of the night. Trailing 22-6, it was looking ominous.
Paul Marshall and Cronin made way for Ian Porter and Adam Macklin as McLaughlin desperately tried to kick-start his team.
A 51st minute Jackson penalty and the introduction of replacement lock Tim Barker gave rise to a good spell with two of the young newcomers, Porter and Macklin, impressive in that passage.
To their credit, Ulster kept working and trying and the replacements certainly made positive impacts.
In truth, Ulster’s handling and passing were sub-standard. Far too many mistakes.
A 64th minute penalty by Tovey hit a post, thereby marring the impressive Welshman’s 100% record, and Ulster — who had not given up on the idea of a bonus — went close from a good scrum, only for Luke Marshall to throw out a sloppy pass which spelt the end of that promising move.
Another fine passage ended with Whitten diving over in the left corner, but TMO Neil Ballard correctly adjudged him to have had a toe in touch.
The fact that Ulster played their best rugby in the final quarter will not have been lost on McLaughlin and his staff.
But you cannot win matches playing like this.