Gilroy in sparkling form as Ulster slay the Kings
Ulster 59 Southern Kings 10
The Jono Gibbes era at Ulster could hardly have began in a more resounding fashion after Southern Kings were put to the sword in a game that was a contest only in name.
In the first game since Director of Rugby Les Kiss departed, the hosts weren't given anything resembling a challenge but did the needful in a nine-try, 59-10 win highlighted by Craig Gilroy's hat-trick on his return from injury.
While the PA blasted Muse's Matt Bellamy proclaiming "it's a new dawn, a new day" before kick-off, it would surely be an optimist to read too much into a win against a side still patently adjusting to their own new beginning in the northern hemisphere.
But, given the struggles the side had in November's reverse fixture out in Port Elizabeth, there were certainly signs of encouragement, most notably Gilroy showing that recent injury hadn't interrupted his try-scoring form.
The back-line accounted for all but one of the scores - Kieran Treadwell providing the forwards' sole representation - with Rob Lyttle bagging a brace.
It wasn't a night devoid of concern though, with Lyttle himself, as well as Charles Piutau and Sean Reidy, departing with injuries.
In terms of scoring though, it was a procession.
Alan O'Connor, captain for the first time, made his presence felt early by stealing a line-out in the opposition '22' but Johnny McPhillips cross-field kick to Craig Gilroy was dealt with comfortably by the Kings.
Still Ulster attacked though, with any penalty sent to the corner and the throwing of caution to the wind paid off at the third attempt when a simple strike move off a maul set Gilroy, moved central, through a gap and an attempted tackle to score under the posts.
In his first game back since a broken cheekbone, the winger picking up right where he left off before the injury will have been an encouraging sign for this Six Nations window.
Despite the seeming one way traffic, Kings would score next when Masixole Banda punished a Luke Marshall offside with a routine penalty.
It would provide only a blip though, and when Ulster were in again, Gilroy was again involved.
Taking an nice inside pass from McPhillips, he scythed through the line before offloading to Stuart McCloskey. Already having built up a head of steam, there was never going to be any stopping the centre from close range.
Penalties were proving a problem for the Kings but it was Ulster who were given real cause for concern when All Black import Charles Piutau was taken from the field supporting his arm in his jersey after 20 minutes.
Things got worse in that regard when Sean Reidy followed him down the tunnel before the half with what appeared to be a calf injury.
While Ulster's accuracy wasn't always there - there were more scoreless visits to the '22' than Gibbes will have cared for - but in Gilroy the hosts had a player for whom the Kings had no answer.
With half-time approaching, the 26-year-old was on the scoresheet again, from virtually the same lineout move, if admittedly this time the Kings gave him slightly more to do as he gunned for the line.
Two minutes into the second-half and the bonus point was secure.
Seemingly alternating between scorer and creator, Gilroy was to the fore once more capitalising off turnover ball to spark more panic in the Kings ranks. While it wasn't always the case, this time Ulster took advantage of the numbers out wide with Gilroy's pass to Marshall quickly returned inside to McPhillips for the out-half to mark his first start with a first try.
With the five-point haul secured, and the Kings surely looking to just get through the half and in from the cold, the floodgates opened.
Lyttle got in on the act when McCloskey perfectly measured a looping pass into his arms and he ran in from distance but there was to be no denying Gilroy his hat-trick.
He got his hat-trick after McPhillips led a breakaway from virtually underneath his own posts and Cooney again was on hand to provide the scoring pass.
One year on from his quick-fire treble in Rome, the man now fifth in the PRO14's all-time try chart will hope he has at least gave Joe Schmidt a reminder of his talents if not for the coming weeks then the summer tour to Australia.
As if to provide a microcosm of Ulster's night - the good mixed with worrisome injuries - the side's seventh try saw Lyttle go over but injure himself in the process.
While the young wing would scamper home, he clutched his hamstring almost instantaneously as he touched down.
With only flanker-cum-lock Matt Dalton on the bench, mounting injuries saw the hosts finish with their number eight, admittedly one with sevens experience, Nick Timoney out on the wing.
Substitute Harlon Klaasen made sure it wasn't a wholly fruitless first visit to Kingspsan Stadium with a breakaway score, but Ulster would add yet more gloss to an already ballooned score by the time all was said and done.
Kieran Treadwell forced his way over from close range and Darren Cave would be the man who had the final say as he barged through more suspect tackling for their ninth and last score of the night.
A facile test for Ulster no doubt, but then we've seen them struggle against clearly inferior opposition before this season. Things elsewhere though, did not go to the desired script.
Over in Edinburgh Ulster will have been hoping for their nearest neighbours Leinster to do them a favour only for the side from the Scottish capital to bank a bonus point win with a last minute try from Mark Bennett. It meant it was a case of as you were in the race for conference B's final play-off spot.
With Ulster welcoming Richard Cockerill's men to Kingspan next week, there will still just be three points between the sides when that game rolls around.
ULSTER: C Piutau; C Gilroy, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; J McPhillips, J Cooney; A Warwick, J Andrew, W Herbst; A O'Connor (capt), K Treadwell; M Rea, S Reidy, N Timoney
REPLACEMENTS: R Herring (for Andrew, 57), K McCall (for Warwick, 57), R Ah You (for Herbst, 57), M Dalton (for Lyttle, 59), C Henry (for Reidy, 34), J Stewart (for McPhillips, 61), D Cave (for McCloskey, 61), L Ludik (for Piutau, 20)
SOUTHERN KINGS: M Banda, Y Penxe, B Klaasen, L Vulindlu, A Volmink; M Du Toit, R Gouws; S Ferreira, M Willemse (capt), P Scholtz; S Greeff, B De Wee; A Ntsila, M Burger, R Lerm
Replacements: S Coetzee, J Smith (for Ferreira, 74), D van der Westhuizen (for Scholtz, 61), J Van Vuuren (for Greef, 61), E Bredenkamp, G Masimla (for Gouws, 61), B Janse van Rensburg (for Vulindlu, 66), H Klaasen (for Volmink, 51)
Referee: J Neville (IRE)
Man of the Match: C Gilroy