For the second time in as many weeks, Ulster were saved from a defeat with a late try. Christian Lealiifano crossed in the 82nd minute to secure a draw but was not able to convert his own try to win Ulster the game.
The Dragons went a man down early in the game after Jack Dixon was sent to the sin bin for an illegal tackle on Louis Ludik. Christian Lealiifano slotted the penalty before Craig Gilroy crossed for the night’s first try thanks to great hands from Charles Piutau and John Andrew.
Ulster made a positive start however indiscipline at the scrum allowed Dragons possession and field position. In their first visit to the Ulster 22, they crossed after from a rolling maul. There was a suspicion of blocking but the try could have been prevented if Ulster did not concede the free kick at scrum time.
Gavin Henson nudged the Dragons in front with 25 minutes played. Ashton Hewitt scored the Dragons’ second try just before the half hour mark. The home side put together some very good passages of play and were able to convert the momentum when Hewitt gathered a kick from Henson inside the Ulster goal area.
Ulster responded immediately with their second try. Great control at the base of a maul 5m out edged forward forcing the home side to cynically sack leaving Marius Mitrea with no option but to award the penalty try.
Ulster started the second half as they started the first. Paul Marshall used all of his experience to spot an opening on the narrow blind side to stretch over. Credit must go to Ulster’s backline who capitalized on a man overlap by using simple hands which released Nick Timoney down the touchline.
The bonus point try did come on 56 minutes. After the forwards pillaged the Dragons defence, Ulster’s back division exploited space in the Dragons’ back line once again and Craig Gilroy powered over for his second try. In true Ulster fashion they eased the foot off the pedal when they scored their fourth try, allowing the Dragons a path back into the game which cost them the victory. The Dragons crossed for their third try and bring themselves within seven points.
Ulster conceded once again with nine minutes left in the match. Gavin Henson worked an overlap thanks to a loop and the former Welsh international passed to send Angus O’Brien over in the corner. The out half stepped up to level the game at 25 apiece.
The Dragons thought they’d snatched a win with three minutes left but Christian Lealiifano crossed with the last play to give Ulster a chance of snatching the victory with the conversion, however Ulster’s playmaker nudged the conversion to the right of the posts.
Yes Ulster did show resolve to come back to score that final try, however questions must be asked how Ulster found themselves in that position. When Craig Gilroy crossed for the bonus point to put 12 points between the sides, Ulster needed to gain possession from the kick off and smother the game. Instead, Dragons found themselves with the ball in the Ulster half and eventually capitalized on their momentum.
Particularly away from home, Ulster seem incapable of putting together an 80 minute performance. The two games that Ulster have won away from home were against Benetton Rugby and Southern Kings and Ulster merely limped over the line in both of the matches. It’s hard to say where it goes wrong for Ulster however, after believing that Ulster were beginning to mould into the defensive system in the matches against Connacht and Wasps, it seems that Ulster are back to square one again.
In spite of Ulster’s defensive woes, their offence was impressive. Tommy Bowe showed good touches from outside centre with his decoy runs often creating overlaps out wide. The forwards carried well and, particularly in the early part of the second half, caused the Dragons problems. For a few seasons Ulster lacked an abrasive, ball carrying pack, however it seems that they have found the players in the form of Matthew Dalton, Kieran Treadwell and Alan O’Connor. Having been impressed by the second row pairing for the second week in a row, I wouldn’t change it for the trip to Harlequins next week, instead slotting Iain Henderson into the back row.
Again, Nick Timoney impressed from No.8. Timoney found himself receiving the ball on the wing but was dangerous going forward, gaining 67 metres off ten carries. Craig Gilroy was the major positive from the match. The winger looked sharp and robust in contact and was the only player to run over 100 metres (123m). In defence Sean Reidy made 19 tackles while Stuart McCloskey, Alan O’Connor and Kieran Treadwell all made 15 tackles.
With the Champions Cup double header up next, I can’t help but feel that Ulster’s European campaign could be in tatters if they put in a similar defensive performance against Harlequins.
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Craig Gilroy, Tommy Bowe, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik, Christian Lealiifano, Paul Marshall; Schalk van der Merwe, John Andrew, Ross Kane, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Greg Jones, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.