Ulster must turn the tide after fourth straight loss
Scarlets 24 Ulster 17
One point from their last four RaboDirect Pro12 matches leaves Ulster facing some very hard work in the next few days and weeks.
They made a promising start on Saturday in Llanelli, going 3-0 up from a seventh minute Ian Humphreys penalty. But they failed to add any further first-half points.
Scarlets, in contrast, scored 13 — two penalties by Aled Thomas who also converted Liam Williams’ try on the stroke of half-time.
Trailing 13-3, Ulster needed a lift and they got one when Humphreys landed a 50th minute goal attempt moments after missing one. But Thomas replied in kind, only for his opposite number to cancel that out.
With the scoreboard reading 16-9 in the hosts’ favour, Ulster briefly threatened to make a fight of it when Andrew Trimble’s opportunism and quick thinking earned them a try out of nothing with 15 minutes remaining, but Scarlets eased away with an Adam Warren try and a Dan Newton penalty restoring the 10-point differential.
And while Humphreys’ late penalty gave Ulster a losing bonus, that was a lot less than they had hoped for when they named a team which included six back-in-the-fold World Cup players in captain Johann Muller, Tom Court, Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace, Trimble and Simon Danielli.
This setback means Brian McLaughlin’s men last won on September 16 when they beat
Cardiff Blues 20-3 at Ravenhill. Since then they have suffered defeats in Wales at the hands of Ospreys, Dragons and Scarlets, plus a home humiliation courtesy of Benetton Treviso.
As a result they have dropped to ninth spot, two points shy of eighth-placed Connacht who provide the opposition at Ravenhill on Saturday night (kick-off 5.35). With that inter-pro being followed by two weekends of Heineken Cup action, Ulster are fast running out of time to sort out their problems.
Nevertheless coach McLaughlin took some solace from the bonus.
“Last year we nicked it here, so those are the small margins between winning and losing games,” was his spin on the latest defeat.
“At least we’ve come away with a point. It’s not what we wanted but it’s vitally important that you get something from games like that so the positive is that we’re not going home empty-handed.”
Scarlets outplayed Ulster, a fact conceded by McLaughlin.
“We were a little off the money,” he agreed. “Our players have just come back from the World Cup and they needed game time so we gave it to them. Hopefully we’ll reap the benefit of that next week.”
He lauded Scarlets, adding: “They played the conditions very well. Their kicking game was excellent and they turned us well.
“In the first 20 minutes we kicked very well too, got good field position, got a penalty and then were unlucky not to get over from a line-out. Scarlets cleared and played well after that.
“They returned the ball excellently and put us under a lot of pressure.”
The coach defended his players staunchly, stressing his confidence in their ability to turn things round.
“We’re very disappointed, but at least the fight was there against Scarlets. The will was there, too – and that’s something we complained had been missing against Treviso. So we’ve something to show for our work.”
He knows, however, that with Ulster having lost four matches on the spin, Connacht will travel at the weekend thinking this is a good time to be coming north.
“This is an exceptionally tough league,” the Ulster coach agrees. “Every game is a tight game. There are no easy wins and with this being an inter-pro we know Connacht are going to give everything.
“But so are we, so it’s going to be another very hard night’s work.”