Monstrous performances from Jean Deysel and Marcell Coetzee inspired Ulster to a six-try victory over Toyota Cheetahs on the opening day of the Guinness PRO14 season.
Tommy Bowe, Stuart McCloskey, Alan O’Connor, Charles PIutau, Louis Ludik and Pete Nelson were the try scorers for Ulster while Clayton Blommetjies, Makazole Mapimpi and Sergeal Petersen were the scorers for Cheetahs.
Ulster signalled their intentions early on through playing an expansive, high risk game. The home side were first on the score sheet through the boot of John Cooney but answered immediately through a try from Blommetjies after a counter attack off a kick from Christian Lealiifano.
I have grown a dislike for the word ‘transition’ as it has been used to describe Ulster since they lost to Leinster in the Heineken Cup final, but there is the anticipation that Ulster are prepared to try new things this season. At Ulster’s first scrum, which was inside the Cheetahs’ 10 metre line, only Piutau and Andrew Trimble stood on the openside. Nothing came from the move but it was good to see Ulster attempt something different which gained them 10m.
A great line from Tommy Bowe off Louis Ludik caught the opposing defender out of position and had enough pace to reach the line from 40 metres out. Bowe looked comfortable all night in both defence and attack despite concerns about his selection at outside centre, however there will be sterner tests to follow in the coming weeks.
With 20 minutes gone the game was very loose and Cheetahs once again capitalised on an Ulster error. Makazole Mapimpi hacked the ball through and had the pace to outsprint Charles Piutau in a race to the line. William Small-Smith added the extras to take the score to 14-8.
Jono Gibbes’ influence was felt in the build up to Ulster’s second try. A rolling maul was cynically dragged down by Henco Venter who was shown a yellow card. Despite failing to win the lineout, Alan O’Connor pounced on a loose ball inside the goal line.
Ulster’s third try came minutes later courtesy of a nice piece of inventive play. Shaping up to maul, the ball was popped to Cooney from the lineout who found to McCloskey on an inside line, not dissimilar to Bowe and found the space in between the opposition backs and forwards.
It’s not too often we celebrate achieving the bonus point before half time but Ulster scored three tries in ten minutes to do so. Probably the most pleasing score came five minutes before the interval. Two strong carries from Coetzee and Deysel bust Ulster into the 22m and simple hands allowed Charles Piutau to bundle over in the corner.
I questioned the selection of Piutau at fullback but he played superbly gaining 117 metres off his 18 carries and beating seven defenders. Despite not having played together before and only having a week to practice together, Lealiifano and Cooney looked sharp with the latter providing quick ball from the base of the ruck.
Last season Ulster had a knack of ‘switching off’ for the ten minutes after the interval. Last night however they added a score through Louis Ludik. Deysel’s thunderous tackle dislodged the ball and soft hands from Robbie Diack created the overlap for Ludik to creep over in the corner.
Sergeal Petersen scored Cheetahs’ third try before Pete Nelson capitalised on their weak defence to score Ulster’s final try and round off a final score of 42-19 in Ulster’s favour.
While Cheetahs weren’t sharp defensively, it was pleasing to see Ulster carry the ball superbly. Deysel and Coetzee were the foundation of most of Ulster’s success on Friday night and are already forming a formidable partnership. If Ulster are to have any success this season, it will be through the two South Africans back rowers.
It was a significantly improved performance from last season but it was by no means a perfect one. Cheetahs disrupted Ulster ball at the line-out regularly, winning three steals in the process. Loose kicking has always been a problem for Ulster Rugby and Cheetahs were able to punish Ulster on one occasion but could have been more clinical with other chances.
A trip to Treviso is in store in game week two and while changes to the starting line-up are to be expected, Ulster will fancy themselves to take maximum points from the game.