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Ulster win arm wrestle with Cardiff Blues under Monday night lights to maintain unbeaten start to season



Michael Lowry crosses for the winning try against Cardiff Blues at Rodney Parade (INPHO/Rogan Thompson)

Michael Lowry crosses for the winning try against Cardiff Blues at Rodney Parade (INPHO/Rogan Thompson)

©INPHO/Rogan Thompson

Michael Lowry crosses for the winning try against Cardiff Blues at Rodney Parade (INPHO/Rogan Thompson)

When the PRO14 rubber-stamped the move to Monday rugby under the lights ahead of this season, it’s unlikely a forwards arm wrestle on a blustery night was what they had in mind.

Ulster, though, having beaten Cardiff Blues by a score of 11-7 off the back of a Mike Lowry try, will care little that their fourth victory in succession would certainly be filed in the ‘one for the purists’ category.

Indeed, having arrived in Newport on their third plane of the day and after one false landing, as well as a few more hours than intended in an airport departure lounge, there’ll have been a part of them was happy just to make it to Rodney Parade in time for kick-off.

Once they had, the story of the game was that of two defensive stands. The first, from Cardiff lasted a full 15 minutes but could just not see the hosts to half-time without Lowry breaching their line; the second from Ulster just after the break saw Dan McFarland’s men survive as Sean Reidy pounced upon a loose ball.

On a night when points were so scarce, there in two passages was the difference between winning and losing.

Without the injured Marcell Coetzee to power across the gainline, there were plenty of times you sensed Ulster missed their burliest of back-row forwards in the tight exchanges as it seemed Cardiff’s defence would leave the visitors banging their heads against the proverbial brick wall.

But with their first-choice 9-10-12 axis in situ for the first time since the European Cup quarter-final against Toulouse back in September, the benefit of the experience of that John Cooney, Billy Burns and Stuart McCloskey brought to things loomed large in terms of game management.

With Burns back in the ten jersey after a calf injury, his first major involvement of the season came as he had to scamper back and dot down in his own in-goal area to avoid an early disaster but the fit-again out-half was soon exerting his influence in more conventional methods.

One scything break deserved more only for his looping wide pass to be dropped by Louis Ludik, while a few probing kicks asked questions of Cardiff’s back-three. A few line-out miscues were denying a better platform, a crooked throw from five metres out the most costly of three turnovers at the set-piece in the first ten minutes.

Under such circumstances, it was no surprise to see Cooney call for the tee when their next penalty came, the scrum-half’s ever-reliable boot kicking the visitors into a three-point lead. His next kick wouldn’t alter the scoreboard but was no less important, a brilliant exit from deep in his own ‘22’ relieving what up to then had been a rare spell of pressure.

The attack had signalled something of a shift in momentum however and it wasn’t long after that Rey Lee-Lo was gathering Jarrod Evans’ chipped kick to score.

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Blues’ ill-discipline kept giving Ulster the chances though and, after seven and a half minutes camped on the try-line replacement flanker Olly Robinson was sent to the bin.

That didn’t stop the established pattern of scrums, scrums and more scrums that had lasted from the 27th minute until the clock had gone red for half-time but all that pressure looked set to be for nought when, as Ulster finally looked to go beyond the pack, the ball squirted loose.

Thankfully for sake of their coach’s mood at half-time if nothing else, Mike Lowry showed just why he’s such an exciting prospect as the livewire full-back looked calm amid the chaos surrounding him to scoot through the gaps to finally get the try.

As Cooney’s conversion arrowed wide of the posts, Ulster’s forwards could have been forgiven for wondering when they’d last had to work quite so hard for five points.

Both sides had their chances in the third quarter but Cardiff were guilty of a few turnovers in the shadow of the Ulster posts, most notably when replacement back-rower Reidy alertly swallowed up a loose ball.

The stoppages - through knock-ons, subsequent set-pieces and some nasty injuries - robbed the game of flow but, thanks to nothing more than their solitary one-point advantage, it was the Irish province who will have been happier as time ticked away without much incident.

A penalty from Cooney with 15 minutes to go nudged his side into a four-point lead, leaving Cardiff needing to score a try.

A knock-down from replacement lock Sam Carter for which he was lucky to escape a yellow gave them an ideal opening to do just that but it was Ulster’s turn to offer stout defence, Cardiff eventually kicking it away having been driven back metre by metre from the ‘22’ to halfway.

While not one to live too long in the memory, it’s fixtures like these in recent years that ensured eight years without a three-game winning streak on the road. Nobody on the flight home will have needed reminding that these are the ones you need.

Relive the game from our live blog:


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