Ulster 42 Cheetahs 19
Ulster gave the Cheetahs a rude welcome to northern hemisphere rugby with a six-try romp at Kingspan Stadium last night.
The South African visitors were playing their first game in the newly named and revamped Guinness PRO14 after making the switch from Super Rugby in the summer and, while they showed flashes of an attack that will trouble their new opposition this season, Ulster took advantage of indiscipline to first gain a foothold in the game and then see it home.
The six tries came from six different scorers after Tommy Bowe, Alan O’Connor, Stuart McCloskey, Charles Piutau, Louis Ludik and Peter Nelson all crossed the whitewash in a win that will provide a huge boost to a side that began the campaign with plenty of question marks.
After shipping two heavy defeats in pre-season, and off the back of missing out on the play-offs last year, it was a perfect start to the new regime with incoming coaches Jono Gibbes, Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon banking a five-point haul in their first competitive game on Les Kiss’s coaching ticket.
And the new boys on the field made quite the impression too with Jean Deysel, the South African flanker signed this summer after spending last season with Munster, earning man of the match honours (inset above receiving his award from Colin Bell of Guinness) while John Cooney and Christian Leali’ifano seem to have quickly developed a real understanding.
Of equal cause for cheer was the performance of the superb Marcell Coetzee in his first competitive game after missing so much of his first season in Belfast through injury.
If there is a reason to preach caution however, it is that Ulster scored five of their six tries when the opposition were dealing with reduced numbers, four through yellow cards and one through injury.
While Ulster had their first point of the season banked after 29 minutes thanks to a try bonus, the complexion of the half was very different before Henco Venter’s yellow card.
Having already missed a relatively straightforward penalty when William Small-Smith was wayward off the tee, the Cheetahs were quick to show what they’ll bring to this league as they raced into an early lead.
Arriving in Belfast with a reputation for throwing the ball around, as well as boasting a handful of players with SA Sevens experience, the Bloemfontein outfit proved the old adage that speed kills, as their pair of early scores both were scored thanks to backs with pace to burn.
Rosco Specman claimed a high ball over Andrew Trimble and streaked upfield before a delightful offload set Clayton Blommetjies away.
Unfortunately for the Cheetahs, it was the last involvement for Specman who appeared to tweak a hamstring.
In response, Tommy Bowe, playing centre rather than wing, showed that he himself still has a burst in the legs when required, charging through untouched after a great line to score the hosts’ first try.
But once again the pace of Rory Duncan’s side was eye catching, Makazola Mapimpi producing the rare sight of Charles Piutau being left for dead as the pair raced after a hacked ball and the man in orange comfortably won the footrace to touch down.
With both scores converted, the Cheetahs held a 14-8 advantage but with 25 minutes gone came the yellow card that saw their game unravel.
A threatening maul was pulled down by Venter and Andrew Brace had no hesitation in sending the flanker to the bin. In the next 10 minutes, Ulster would score three times.
The first came immediately, Alan O’Connor grabbing the first try of his senior career after Ulster messed up their line-out but Sergeal Peterson knocked on.
A penalty earned by Chris Henry’s good work on the deck gave the opportunity to kick for touch, and quick out ball allowed Stuart McCloskey to take the ball on the charge and, just like Bowe before him, score without a hand being laid on him.
And just before Venter was to return, Piutau was able to barge his way over in the corner.
Both sides had chances to score before the turn, a McCloskey knock-on after a great scoop off the deck by Henry scuppering what seemed sure to be a try, but Kiss’s side will have been thrilled to take a 27-14 into the break.
It took just 55 seconds of the second-half for things to get even better, the side’s fifth try arriving after a huge hit from Deysel dislodged the ball from Peterson and Ulster moved quickly through the hands for Ludik to score in the corner.
Peterson will have felt better after providing a try of his own following a great burst from Cecil Afrika, but the Kingspan’s most distant of visitors would not score again, falling one try short of a consolation bonus point in their maiden contest.
But indiscipline would bite the Cheethas again, this time prop Johan Coetzee seeing yellow for a horse-collar tackle on Trimble.
Again they couldn’t hold out with a man down with Nelson, who had an impressive cameo when replacing Leali’ifano, ghosting past the poor attempted tackle of Paul Schoeman to match the feat of O’Connor and grab his first Ulster try.
It capped off a perfect start to the season for Ulster who will expect to back up this opening salvo seven days from now when they travel to a Treviso side roundly beaten by Munster in Cork last night.
Ulster: C Piutau, A Trimble, T Bowe, S McCloskey, L Ludik; C Leali’ifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst; R Diack, A O’Connor; J Deysel, C Henry (capt), M Coetzee
Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring, 68), C Black (for McCall, 68), R Ah You (for Herbst, 60), M Rea (for O’Connor, 60), S Reidy (for Coetzee, 51), D Shanahan (for Cooney, 75), P Nelson (for Leali’ifano, 51), D Cave (Piutau, 68)
Cheetahs: S Peterson; R Specman, W Small-Smith, A Mgijima,M Mapimpi; C Blommetjies, S Venter;C Marais, J Du Toit, J Coetzee; J Basson, R Hugo; P Schoeman, H Venter, N Jordaan.
Replacements: T Van Jaarsveld (for Du Toit, 50) O Nche (for Marais, 51), T Botha, R Bernardo (for Basson, 52), G Olivier (Hugo, 68), T Meyer, C Afrika (for Specman, 14), R Benjamin (for Blommetjies, 44)
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRE)