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Ulster fly out of the blocks to preserve unblemished league run

Ulster 52 Dragons 25

By Jonathan Bradley

Fears that Dragons were planning some kind of rope-a-dope tactics for last night's trip to Belfast were quickly proved to be unfounded as Ulster ensured their meeting with the Newport outfit was more of a no contest.

The Welsh side pitched up at Kingspan Stadium having made 13 changes from the side that secured their first victory since January against Connacht last week and, despite Ulster assertions that the second stringers would have a point to prove, Bernard Jackman's side were beaten out of the gate.

Five first half tries had matters settled by the interval and, there was little easing up after the turn as Les Kiss's men crossed for three more to regain top spot of Conference B, ending the night as the only remaining unbeaten side in their half of the Guinness PRO14.

After racking up the most points they've managed in the league against non-Italian opposition since April of 2014, Leinster's defeat in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs saw the northern province leapfrog their close neighbours to sit alone atop the standings.

And if last week's game against Scarlets was pulsating, this was a more of a stroll for Ulster who were in little danger for the duration of the game.

While Ulster played with plenty of tempo and energy, the result was never in doubt from the moment Stuart McCloskey scored when plenty of fans still finding their seats in the stands.

Just two minutes were on the clock when Charles Piutau, unplayable right up until the moment he was called ashore with half an hour remaining, broke between Ollie Griffiths and George Gasson and left his flankers, Chris Henry and Clive Ross, to put Stuart McCloskey over the line.

While the try scorer was pinged for not releasing to allow Dragons to kick three points, it was the most temporary stemming of the tide.

Having executed an excellent kicking game against the league champions just seven days ago, this time the hosts barely put boot to ball as the pressure just kept coming.

Pete Nelson, who had scored in the season's first game against Cheetahs exposed the Dragons defensive flaws as he squeezed through some despairing tackles to dot down.

Another Dragons penalty kept them within touching distance at least but, as the game approached its second quarter, the floodgates were to open.

Ulster's maul has been causing the opposition in all three of their home games so far this season and so it proved again last night as a well-drilled eight were poised to force their way over before Dragons tight-head Lloyd Fairbrother entered illegally.

The result was a penalty try awarded by Dan Jones and a yellow card for the prop.

Before he was to return, Ulster would have the game, and the bonus point, in the bag with Nick Timoney, on the occasion of his first Ulster start, bagging his first senior try before Wiehahn Herbst, only on as a blood replacement for the robust Rodney Ah You, also muscled his way across the whitewash.

Substitute hooker Rhys Buckley would get a first score for his before the break off a maul of their own but, 20 points to the good at half-time, it was hardly a score to spark much panic on the terraces.

With Kiss turning to his bench for the first time after 40 minutes - Andrew Warwick replacing Kyle McCall - it hardly halted Ulster's momentum and they began the second period just as quickly as the first.

Having not got in on the act for the first four scores, it was only a matter of time before the side's most prolific scorer of the last 12 months got his name on the scoresheet.

Indeed Jacob Stockdale will likely never score a more fortuitous try in his whole career than his third of the season, coming after USA international Thretton Palamo inexplicably failed to touch down Tommy Bowe's chip through for a '22' drop out.

The scores kept coming thick and fast, the speed that has made Timoney a Sevens option for Ireland coming to the fore as he sprinted home for his second and Dragons replacement scrum-half Dane Blacker showing good awareness to slip between Ulster's pillar defence.

A quick tap and go penalty from Shanahan, usually the speciality of the man he replaced Paul Marshall, would bring about Ulster's eighth and last try of the night, even if both Stockdale and the crowd were sure the winger had bagged a second for himself before Jones and the TMO intervened to flag up a knock-on in the build-up.

Indeed it was Dragons who would have the final say, scoring their third through William Talbot-Davies to briefly spark late hopes of the most unlikely of bonus points, but the final action of the game would instead be a yellow card for Ah You, the former Connacht tight-head somewhat blotting his copybook on what had been his best performance for some time.

And so the message next week will be very much the same as the last, with coaches sure to be preaching against any hint of complacency ahead of a trip to Parma to face Zebre.

Top of the conference, and boasting only one of two unbeaten records left in the PRO14, Kiss will be demanding his charges carry this momentum right through to next month's Champions Cup window and there will be little excuse should they fail to keep things rolling out in northern Italy.

While greater tests lie ahead, Ulster are passing those currently placed in front of them with flying colours.

Ulster: C Piutau, T Bowe, D Cave, McCloskey, J Stockdale, P Nelson, P Marshall, K McCall, R Herring, R Ah You, R Diack, A O'Connor, C Ross, C Henry (captain), N Timoney.

Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 49), A Warwick (for McCall, 40), W Herbst, I Henderson (for O'Connor, 57), M Rea (for Ross, 53), D Shanahan (for P Marshall, 54), B Herron (for Cave, 52), R Lyttle (for Piutau, 49).

Dragons: C Meyer, A Hughes, T Palamo, P Howard, G Gasson, D Jones, O Leonard, T Davies, G Ellis, L Fairbrother, M Screech, R Landman, M Williams, O Griffiths (captain), R Blake.

Replacements: R Buckley (for Ellis, 22), P Price (for Davies, 49), B Harris (for Price, 73), J Davies, L Greggains (for Blake, 24), D Blacker (for Leonard, 49), A O'Brien (for D Jones, 45), W Talbot Davies (for Hughes, 45).

Referee: Dan Jones (WAL)

Man of the Match: N Timoney (Ulster)

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