Superb Ulster stun Scarlets with stirring bonus-point win in Wales

Scarlets 24

Ulster 25

Murray Kinsella reports from Parc y Scarlets

THE STADIUM STAFF opted to blast out Christmas songs in the breaks in play at Parc y Scarlets for Ulster’s visit, and the Irish province will head home with some early festive cheer after a potentially season-changing bonus-point win in Llanelli.

Dan McFarland’s men arrived as outsiders, with Scarlets desperate to save their European season after two defeats from their first two games, but Ulster depart with their hopes of reaching the knock-out stages of the Heineken Champions Cup majorly boosted.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring a try with teammates
Ulster stunned Scarlets in Llanelli.
Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The forward pack, which has struggled so often in recent seasons, was instrumental for Ulster after McFarland had named a strong starting eight.

Loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan and tighthead Marty Moore were superb, winning scrum penalties and making an impact in contact, while captain Rory Best led by grizzled example.

Iain Henderson and Kieran Treadwell were abrasive in the second row, as try-scorer Marcell Coetzee, Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney – a first-half replacement – worked tirelessly.

There was real cutting edge to Ulster behind the scrum too, with left wing Jacob Stockdale scoring a sublime first-half try, while the magnificent man of the match Will Addison and impactful right wing Henry Speight also dotted down.

With halfbacks John Cooney and Billy Burns steering the ship with composure and Stuart McCloskey and Louis Ludik providing leadership elsewhere in the backline, this was a benchmark victory from Ulster.

There was a deeply nervy closing few minutes, but Ulster’s bonus-point win draws them level with Racing at the top of Pool 4 on nine match points, although the French side do still have to play Leicester this weekend.

Still, with province’s spirits greatly lifted and Scarlets now set to travel to Belfast next weekend with their play-off hopes looking all but over, there are exciting times ahead for this Ulster squad.

Jacob Stockdale runs in a try despite Gareth Davies and Steff Evans
Jacob Stockdale beats Gareth Davies and Steff Evans for his first-half score.
Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ulster started poorly, with Addison spilling Scarlets’ kick-off and then Henderson being caught offside to allow Rhys Patchell to kick the home side in front off the tee with two minutes gone.

But the Irish province’s threat on the ball swiftly became apparent, a clever grubber from Addison allowing Speight to regather and get pulled down five metres out.

Ulster shifted the ball wide left and looked certain to score only for Ludik’s pass to the unmarked Stockdale to be knocked-on by Johnny McNicholl. Referee Alexandre Ruiz opted against taking a closer look with his TMO and instead came back for a penalty advantage that Cooney kicked for 3-3.

McFarland’s men hit the front three minutes later in sensational fashion as Addison broke between Jonathan Davies and Tom Prydie off a scrum inside the Ulster half and fed Stockdale.

The Ireland wing deftly stepped inside Steff Evans and fended Gareth Davies to sprint clear and score down the left, Cooney’s conversion drifting wide in the wind.

Scarlets were struggling and gave up several needless penalties, though the Ulster scrum deserves major credit for a 16th-minute shunt that brought a whistle from Ruiz.

However, a strong wind meant Ulster struggled to get out of their half at times and Scarlets gathered their composure to score a try in the 26th minute, the maul powering forward before Davies sniped, then Evans finished smartly to allow Patchell to convert.

Henry Speight celebrates his try with Billy Burns, Jordi Murphy and Louis Ludik
Henry Speight scored Ulster’s second try.
Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

But it was Ulster who finished the half on top, Speight’s influence growing with a turnover penalty before he finished the visitors’ second try. 

This time, the Ulster forwards generated momentum by mauling into the 22 after Patchell had kicked out on the full, before high-tempo ball-carrying earned an overlap and Ludik put Speight away in the right corner.

Though Cooney couldn’t convert from out wide, a 13-10 lead at the break was deserved reward for Ulster.

A big linebreak from classy Wales centre Davies through Cooney early in the second half reminded McFarland’s men of the ever-present danger, while Scarlets boss Wayne Pivac sent Hadleigh Parkes into the fray off the bench minutes later to add another threat.

Ulster heeded the warning, with tighthead Moore winning a scrum penalty that saw Burns kick his team into the Scarlets 22.

Again, the maul provided the platform before Addison cut a clever short line off scrum-half Cooney and burst through the Scarlets defence all too easily to score under the posts, Cooney converting for a 20-10 lead with half an hour left.

Davies continued to look like Scarlets’ most likely gamebreaker, cutting the Ulster defence twice in quick succession as Pivac’s team looked to bounce back.

John Cooney kicks a penalty
John Cooney has a shot off the tee.
Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Scarlets won a scrum penalty inside the Ulster 22 off the back of Davies’ good work but opted against an easy shot at goal to narrow the gap, instead playing off another scrum, only for captain Best to win a big turnover penalty under the posts.

The Welsh region were far from dead yet, McNicholl playing the key role as Scarlets scored a try heading into the final quarter.

Having made big yardage from the initial set-piece, the Kiwi fullback sniped down the blindside on the left-hand touchline approaching the Ulster 22 and offloaded out the back of his left hand to send the supporting Evans over for his second.

Patchell’s conversion brought Scarlets back to within three points of Ulster and ensured a thrilling denouement.

The visitors knew they needed more and a scything break from Timoney – on in the first half after a Sean Reidy head injury – set the platform, Ulster recycling to send Coetzee over in the right corner.

There was a brief TMO check to confirm the ball hadn’t gone forward as Ulster shifted it from left to right, but Ruiz signalled the five-pointer, which Cooney very nearly converted from the touchline.

Scarlets did their utmost to reel the visitors in, Evans almost notching his hat-trick in the left corner, but a brilliant tackle from Speight and Ludik said it all about Ulster’s effort.

There was late, late drama as sub back row Dan Davis scored a last-gasp try that Dan Jones converted to bring Scarlets back to within a point and allow them one last attacking thrust to save themselves, but it was Ulster’s night.

Scarlets scorers:

Tries: Steff Evans [2], Dan Davis

Conversions: Rhys Patchell [2 from 2], Dan Jones [1 from 1]

Penalties: Rhys Patchell [1 from 1]

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Jacob Stockdale, Henry Speight, Will Addison, Marcell Coetzee

Conversions: John Cooney [1 from 4]

Penalties: John Cooney [1 from 2]

SCARLETS: Johnny McNicholl; Tom Prydie,  Jonathan Davies, Kieron Fonotia (Hadleigh Parkes ’44), Steff Evans; Rhys Patchell (Dan Jones ’74), Gareth Davies (Sam Hidalgo-Clyne ’73); Rob Evans (Wyn Jones ’61), Ken Owens (captain) (Ryan Elias ’70), Samson Lee (Werner Kruger ’60); Lewis Rawlins (Steve Cummins ’25), David Bulbring; Will Boyde, James Davies, Uzair Cassiem (Dan Davis ’27).

ULSTER: Louis Ludik; Henry Speight, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns (Johnny McPhillips ’75), John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rory Best (captain) (Rob Herring ’70), Marty Moore (Tom O’Toole ’70); Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell; Sean Reidy (Nick Timoney ’25), Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee.

Replacements: Kyle McCall, Matty Rea, Dave Shanahan, Darren Cave.

Referee: Alexandre Ruiz [FFR].

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne preview a big weekend of Heineken Cup action and dissect the week’s main talking points.

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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