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Ulster produce big finish as Craig Gilroy leads province to bonus point victory over stubborn Scarlets


Ulster winger Craig Gilroy is tackled by Dane Blacker (INPHO/Ryan Byrne)

Ulster winger Craig Gilroy is tackled by Dane Blacker (INPHO/Ryan Byrne)

©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Ulster winger Craig Gilroy is tackled by Dane Blacker (INPHO/Ryan Byrne)

More an evening of hard graft and industry rather than crowd-pleasing artistry but, even so, Ulster got the job done to return to United Rugby Championship action with a needed result.

Coming off a great run in Europe, Dan McFarland’s side nevertheless had two reverses against their name in terms of the league, so to hit the mark with an albeit hard-earned bonus point was a more than acceptable way to begin this five-game block over the Six Nations period.

Yes, they had to work to get there against an obdurate Scarlets side, but in Nathan Doak, Billy Burns, Ethan McIlroy, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor and Duane Vermeulen they possessed an extra edge despite missing so many.

True, the Scarlets will rue their inaccuracy but, in the end, Ulster were simply better at rolling up their sleeves and making the big plays count, roll on Connacht next week.

It’s always a tricky time when the Six Nations rolls in. Players away on international duty and a usually mounting injury list mean that disruption tends to be the name of the game at this point in the calendar.

It’s not just Ulster either who are currently dealing with all this, Dwayne Peel’s Scarlets are in pretty much occupying the same craft with much-altered selection being part and parcel of where we’re at.

And, of course, there are extra fixtures inked in after the Covid-disrupted festive period. Nothing else for it but get on.

Two minutes in and Ulster had a penalty after Scarlets had strayed offside, Doak lined it up and did the needful to get the home side under way.

Ulster then temporarily lost Marty Moore to an HIA, Gareth Milasinovich entering the fray for some rare game-time after his loan spell with Saracens, and from the resultant scrum – Moore had knocked on – the visitors made ground both left and right with the hosts then conceding their own penalty.

Dan Jones did the needful and the scores were tied at 3-3 after nine minutes.

After some more, well, stalemate, Ulster secured another penalty on the quarter of the hour mark. This time Billy Burns put the ball in the corner.

After mauling, the home side moved left and then the ball was spun right though Angus Curtis knocked on with Craig Gilroy waiting for what might have been a scoring feed.

Then, Nathan Doak took a quick tap penalty and his run led to Shaun Evans going off his feet and another penalty which was cornered.

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Closer in this time, Ulster mauled only for John Andrew, on his first start of the campaign, to be held up with Carwyn Tuipulotu to the fore, after he surged for the touchdown.

Greg Jones then intercepted a scoring pass to Ryan Conbeer as the momentum swung to the visitors. Then, on 27 minutes, Tom Rogers was hit high and on the head by Craig Gilroy who was shown yellow by referee Jaco Peyper on the basis that the Scarlets’ winger was dipping though the Ulster winger may have been fortunate with the colour of card.

With Ulster down a man, Scarlets produced a move off a lineout and after breaking left through Ioan Nicholas, Samson Lee barrelled over from close range.

Jones then produced a superb touchline conversion and the Scarlets led 10-3 after 28 minutes.

Six minutes later and Ulster were over when they ran a kickable penalty, Duane Vermeulen carrying hard before Curtis dived over just at the posts.

Jones was then wide with a long-ranger just before the half-time whistle was blown.

With the strengthening wind now behind Ulster, it was the Welsh who again showed their attacking intent when Tyler Morgan broke a tackle and threw a pass to Shaun Evans who knocked on.

Ulster then woke up to the situation when Ethan McIlroy broke a tackle, found space and fed Doak, whose kick through to the line was covered by the visitors’ scrambling defence.

A penalty put into the corner, it was eminently kickable, was then wasted by the home side when Bradley Roberts, just on the field, produced a horrible overthrow which could have led to damage being done but for another dropped ball by the Scarlets.

Ulster’s response? A big attack which saw Marcus Rea carry hard, Gilroy get close and then Sam Carter nail the try.

Doak, however, missed the extras and Ulster then lived dangerously when Steff Evans latched onto a kick though was adjudged to be offside.

The Welsh came again though and Sione Kalamafoni appeared to be held just short as they cranked up the pressure. A huge set from the resultant scrum eventually resulted in replacement prop Kemsley Mathias reaching the line.

Evans missed the conversion and the scores were tied at 15-15.

Time for Ulster to come again and they did so. Another kickable penalty went to the corner and after strong showings from Mick Kearney and Angus Curtis, Milasinovich reached and made the try line.

Doak converted the 65th minute score though only after the TMO requested Peyper have another look.

The bonus point was now on and arrived in the 68th minute when, from a Burns break, Gilroy snaffled the ball, with some help from Doak, and scored.

The Ulster scrum-half missed the two points and, as things turned out, that ended the scoring for the evening.

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