It was an emotional night at Kingspan Stadium as the game marked the 5th anniversary of the Spence family tragedy with Ulster remembering the untimely passing of their former player, Nevin, prior to kick off.
The players paid their own fitting tribute by recording an exciting 27-20 over the current league champions, Scarlets.
The game was a cagey affair until Johnny McNicholl crashed over on the hour mark. Ulster answered through Jacob Stockdale before Jonathan Davies combined with Steff Evans to retake the lead. Ulster had the final say as John Andrew jogged over the whitewash to seal a confident home victory.
While Ulster enjoyed 80% of the possession and territory in the first half, the score was only 9-3 half time. It was Scarlets who were first on the board thanks to a penalty from new signing from Toulon, Leigh Halfpenny. The boot of Christian Lealiifano kept the away side pinned back in the first half and allowed Ulster to control the territory. Cooney responded to Halfpenny’s opening penalty with one of his own after an intentional knock down by Tadgh Beirne.
Midway through the first half signalled the start of a period of Ulster pressure. Jacob Stockdale gathered a kick pass from Christian Lealiifano to make a break and take the play inside the Scarlets’ 22m line however Hadleigh Parkes stripped the ball off Matthew Rea. Minutes later, John Cooney made a break off a ruck and offloaded to Lealiifano who ran an excellent line and showed great gas to burst into the opposition half. Gareth Davies cynically killed the play and Cooney extended Ulster’s lead to six points.
Scarlets had a chance through Steff Evans just before the break but McCloskey managed to hold on to the Scarlets’ winger and not let the league’s top try scorer last year break free. It was a worry for many at Kingspan that Ulster were only 9-3 up at half-time even though they controlled the majority of the play. Scarlets didn’t have many opportunities to attack but there was an anxious vibe around Kingspan that Scarlets would indeed hit their purple patch.
Scarlets had glimpses of success early in the second half. Hadleigh Parkes launched the ball down into Ulster territory but Luke Marshall ran a nice line to stay in front of Evans and gather the loose ball. Ulster were the side to score first in the second half as John Cooney converted another penalty after referee Marius Mitrea adjudged Scarlets to be offside at the ruck.
Halfpenny added another penalty before Johnny McNicholl crossed for the first try of the evening. Parkes straightened his line in the centre of the pitch and was able to offload for Rhys Patchell leaving a two-on-one with McNicholl against Tommy Bowe. Thankfully, Ulster did not panic. Stuart McCloskey, who was magnificent all night found space on the left wing took two defenders out before offloading to Sean Reidy who unselfishly passed to Stockdale for Ulster’s opening try of the night.
A poor decision from the usually-reliable Andrew Trimble resulted in Scarlets’ second try. A rushed lineout from the Ulster captain forced a loose kick from John Cooney. Scarlets launched a counter attack which ended with a score from Jonathan Davies thanks to good play from Steff Evans and John Barclay. As the game entered the final ten minutes Christian Lealiifano knocked over a penalty to level the game up.
John Andrew stepped up to win the game for Ulster with three minutes remaining. Stuart McCloskey freed his arms in the tackle to release Tommy Bowe down the wing. The Monaghan man found Paul Marshall running an inside who did well to hold on to the ball. Matthew Rea was on hand to provide quick ruck ball and Luke Marshall was on hand to find his ex Ballymena colleague for a short run over the line.
It was a deserved Ulster victory, but there are still things to work on in terms of converting chances. McCloskey was outstanding and gained 68 metres off 17 carries. Christian Lealiifano, along with John Cooney, controlled the flow of play superbly and both look astute signings to guide Ulster throughout the season. Ulster’s territorial style of play negated the omission of their two main ball carriers and with Coetzee, Deysel, the Lions contingent and several injured players to come back into the discussion, it leaves Les Kiss with a headache, but a nice one to have.
Ulster welcome Bernard Jackman’s Dragons side to Kingspan next week and they are fresh from a convincing 21-8 victory over Connacht at Rodney Parade in what will be a very different test for Kiss and his team.
Ulster: Louis Ludik, Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Christian Lealiifano, John Cooney, Kyle McCall, Rob Herring, Wiehahn Herbst, Kieran Treadwell, Alan O’Connor, Matthew Rea, Chris Henry (c), Sean Reidy. Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Rodney Ah You, Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall, Peter Nelson, Tommy Bowe.