Travel-sick Ulster can't change script
Another away game for Ulster, another defeat - the same old storyline of a season everyone can't wait to forget.
Three first-half tries by Martyn Williams, Gareth Thomas and Jamie Roberts provided the foundation for a comfortable 30-17 victory for title-chasing Cardiff at a rain-swept Arms Park on Saturday night.
Ulster were undone by some sloppy and at times passive defending, particularly from set pieces and the game was already well beyond their grasp at half-time as they trailed 27-3, with Ben Blair converting all three touchdowns and slotting two penalties.
Although the visitors managed something of a second-half revival with tries by Ryan Caldwell and Tommy Bowe, both converted by Niall O'Connor who had also landed a first-half penalty, to win the second half 14-3, there was a sense that Cardiff had taken their foot off the gas with the job done.
The home side, who steadied their ship once Caldwell was harshly sent to the sin bin for what appeared to be legal rucking just moments after scoring his try, slotted a penalty by Dai Flanagan and eventually pushed hard for a fourth try. But Ulster held firm.
And Ulster coach Matt Williams took heart from what he called improvements across a number of areas against a classy and hugely powerful Cardiff side.
"The boys showed a lot of character out there," said Williams. " The way they bounced back was a credit to them. We have seen them fall apart before when they had a sin-binning but when Ryan Caldwell got a yellow card in the second half - which was a wrong one - they were smart and courageous.
"I thought Paul Marshall and Niall O'Connor improved as the game went on, Mark McCrea had a tough night to make his debut as a full-back and did a great job. We will continue to use games like this to blood these guys because they are talented."
Williams at least can take comfort from the fact that his side's remaining three games in the Magners League are at Ravenhill, where the province have won their last four.
But Connacht's surprise victory at Newport Gwent Dragons on Friday night ensures the finale will still be laced with tension.
Ulster now have a nine-day break until Munster travel to Ravenhill for the first of two games in four days, with Glasgow due in Belfast on Saturday, May 3.
Connacht, who trail their northern rivals by four points and have played a game more, finish their campaign with two home games against Cardiff (May 2) and the Neath/Swansea Ospreys (May 9).
Two bonus-points wins for Michael Bradley's men would leave Ulster needing to pick up seven points from their last three games - two victories would do it.
Williams' mantra since taking the reins in February has been to make Ravenhill a fortress again while using the away games to examine options and blood younger players with a view to next season.
That period of experimentation is over and the Ulster coach, who defended his selection policy for Friday, even given Connacht's surprise win, admits the goal now is to win all three games.
"We can't be powered by other people," he said. "We are in charge of our own destiny. They (Connacht) have two games, we have three games and that's 15 points.
"We have got to blood these young players, we have got to bring them through. I would not be coaching this province in the right manner if I didn't give these young guys an opportunity. We have just got to believe in ourselves and believe in the next three games we will get points.
"It is all about the next three games. We are coming home and I make no bones about it, we are coming home to win.
"We have two tough games coming up but we are at home, we will be in our own beds and we don't have to get in a bus or catch a plane again this season.
"We are in Belfast full stop and we want everyone to come out and support us. There are going to be some great players coming to town, lots of Irish and Welsh internationals. Cardiff are a wonderful side who play attractive rugby and we want to do the same."