Careless Ulster throw it all away in Cardiff Blues PRO12 loss
Cardiff Blues 23-13 Ulster
Back-to-back defeats mean Ulster's season is in danger of falling into an unrecoverable tailspin after another performance punctuated by errors and sloppy play saw Les Kiss' squad succumb 23-13 at lowly Cardiff yesterday.
Of particular concern is that Ulster's profligacy allowed them to lose control of a game which was theirs for the taking - they led 13-9 with less than 20 minutes to go - with the concession of two late tries not only resulting in defeat but also seeing the visitors fail to come away with a losing bonus point.
Though they stay fourth in the table, Ulster are vulnerable to being overhauled for the play-offs by Edinburgh and Munster - Anthony Foley's side having a game in hand - who are now just four points behind while Kiss' men have a tricky run-in.
Rhys Patchell's 72nd minute try, after the Blues out-half had countered from deep in his own half as a result of Ulster losing possession, was the crucial moment when Kiss' squad began to crumble after resisting a Cardiff surge around the hour mark.
And further damage was done in the closing minutes when sub Aled Summerhill got over with Patchell converting both late tries.
In truth, though, significant damage had already been done and Ulster's failure to score after Craig Gilroy's 45th minute try had been converted by skipper Paddy Jackson came back to hurt them with Jackson's 66th minute penalty miss being cruelly exposed.
Ulster never really managed to fully rise above their own error rate and yet seemed to have done enough before they effectively presented Cardiff with a chance to win which the hosts gladly took with Patchell, Dan Fish, Manoa Vosawai and Rey Lee-Lo all shining.
For Ulster, too many players produced fitful displays with good work often being replicated by frighteningly sloppy play.
Ulster were hit by Luke Marshall having to leave injured after only six minutes with Darren Cave taking his place and matters didn't improve with a scrum penalty being coughed up by the Ulster front row but Patchell was badly wide.
Jackson was then wide with his first shot at goal after 18 minutes which set the tone for most of a dismal half with one notable bright spot being Nick Williams galloping up the blindside which, ultimately, resulted in Jackson nailing his first penalty after 31 minutes.
That became 6-0 four minutes later after a great poach by Peter Browne wrapped up Vosawai. But instead of closing out the half, Ulster managed to concede a penalty in the last minute when Cave was pinged for being off his feet with Patchell kicking the penalty.
Ulster began the new half in the same manner with a penalty which Patchell impressively landed from long range to tie the scores.
Now the visitors had to respond and, after Franco van der Merwe intercepted a Blues attack, Ulster got into Cardiff territory where Sam Arnold burst through and put Gilroy clear to dot down.
Jackson converted the 45th minute score and Ulster now led 13-6 but nearly conceded a try when a loose kick was run back by Patchell and only a magnificent tackle from Stuart Olding prevented Fish.
Soon after, Patchell narrowed Ulster's lead to four with a penalty. From the restart, though, Sean Reidy won a penalty at the breakdown but Jackson's shot at goal crucially sailed wide and afterwards Arnold left injured.
It looked like it might be a game-turning moment and so it proved with the tries from Patchell and Summerhill - both converted by Patchell - arriving in the closing minutes.
To compound Ulster's misery, Rory Scholes was bundled into touch near the Blues line in the last move.
Cardiff Blues: Dan Fish; Blaine Scully, Aled Summerhill, Rey Lee-Lo, Tom James; Rhys Patchell, Tomos Williams; Brad Thyer, Matthew Rees, Salesi Ma'afu, Jarrad Hoeata, James Down, Josh Turnbull, Ellis Jenkins, Manoa Vosawai.
Replacements: T Filise for Ma'afu half-time, J Evans for Fish 59mins, J Navidi for Vosawai 61mins, L Jones for T Williams 65mins, K Dacey for Rees 67mins, T Davies for Thyer 74mins, M Cook for Hoeata 74mins
Ulster: Stuart Olding; Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Sam Arnold, Jacob Stockdale; Paddy Jackson (capt), Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, John Andrews, Bronson Ross; Peter Browne, Franco van der Merwe; Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Replacements: D Cave for Marshall 8mins, R Lutton for Ross half-time, K McCall for Black 48mins, R Wilson for Van der Merwe 66mins, R Scholes for Arnold 68mins, S Reidy for Henry 55-68 and 78mins, D Shanahan for Pienaar 78mins
Not used J Murphy
Man of the match: Rhys Patchell
Match rating: 5/10
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)