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Ruan Pienaar in fitness race for Ulster Rugby's Euro bid

By Michael Sadlier

Well it was all spoilt a little bit as with so much to celebrate as Stephen Ferris made his sizeable entrance, we had the sight of Ruan Pienaar heading in the other direction with a shoulder injury.

Pienaar's exit naturally heightened fears that he could be doubtful for the looming Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown with Saracens on April 5, though there was no official confirmation of the extent of his problem.

Still, there was much to be positive about in Ulster's latest Pro12 win. After all, Ulster's second consecutive bonus point win was their 11th straight home success of the season, in all competitions, and they are now heading in the right direction of an ultimate play-off place.

They are 12 points ahead of Glasgow in fifth spot – admittedly the Scots have two games in hand – but better still nine in front of the Ospreys in fourth and now a mere three behind Munster in second.

And Friday night's victory in this rearranged fixture has seen them come through the tricky Six Nations window, and the disruption of it all, along with the weather, in good shape as they begin preparations for two away games – Edinburgh on Friday and Cardiff the following Saturday – as the big European one against Saracens comes into direct view.

Their accuracy was not entirely on the money at a windy Ravenhill on Friday night, but the brace of tries from Paddy Jackson after his Ireland rejection plus a well-worked Tommy Bowe score put them pretty firmly in the driving seat to keep them unbeaten in the last seven games home and away.

They did struggle to put more points on the scoreboard after going 21-3 up after just over half an hour. Tom Court's bonus point try – their next score after Pienaar had missed two second half penalties and the Scarlets had scored 13 unanswered points – didn't arrive until the last minute.

But, they still took the maximum points and welcomed back Ferris who rewarded us all with a powerful display, doubtless heavily stacked with controlled frustration, while Craig Gilroy – also sprung from the bench – looked sharp as the game broke up.

Add to that notable efforts from Stuart McCloskey and Rory Scholes – one tackle by the latter saved a try – along with more good work from Jared Payne and a useful hit-out for Nick Williams and Ulster nearly came away with everything they would have required before the gradual returns of Rory Best, Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry and Iain Henderson from Six Nations duty along with Luke Marshall from his concussion-enforced rest.

But, as ever, their patchy moments on the pitch were overshadowed by the worrying loss of Pienaar and the earlier departure on a stretcher of prop Callum Black with an apparent ankle problem.

Court, though, was right to remain upbeat after Friday night's achievement.

"We set out in this four game segment to get four wins and to end up with 18 points, we've obviously surpassed what we had aimed to do," the try-scoring prop who came on for Black said.

"Even though the way we've played some of the games has been a bit scrappy, obviously the results are there.

"We just need to get more consistency and a bit more sharpness. This is probably our best international period, without having those players, for quite a long time," Court added about the consistently absent Best, Trimble, Henry.

"That was the focus this year to make sure there wasn't a bit of a lull with the international players being away and I think we've achieved that though the way we played the games maybe hasn't been that great we've got there in the end."

Belfast Telegraph


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