How everything came together for Ulster's five star performance at Scarlets

When Ulster were in this stadium two weeks ago, they made more than 250 tackles in a game when they got no reward beyond keeping the Scarlets to a four-try return.

That night, there was no fault to be found with their defensive application or effort, but other aspects of their game, namely their discipline and ball retention, deserted them.

It was the season in a microcosm, a little to like and a lot to work on. The early days of the Dan McFarland project had certainly felt like as much as there was progress from last season, that work in progress was more apt. When one thing worked, another failed and rarely did any facet of the game show consistency week to week.

Last night though, everything came together at once. In Europe, and on the big stage, the timing could hardly have been better.

A five-star and four try performance secured their first win at Parc y Scarlets since 2012 and breathed new life into quarter-final hopes that have gone unfulfilled for the past four seasons.

The quartet of scores on the night were provided by Jacob Stockdale, Henry Speight, Will Addison and Marcell Coetzee but what was striking was the spread of big performances provided by the visiting side.

The maul was potent, the scrum solid and the backline incisive. Speight and skipper Rory Best were among those who produced their best of the season but the overall effort put in was perhaps best surmised by the stat that only Jordi Murphy (22) made more successful tackles than young loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan.

Their best European night for, at the very least, three years began inauspiciously – a fumbled kick-off and a quick penalty. For the remainder, it was hard to find much fault. They struck back quickly from that self-inflicted deficit, a penalty from John Cooney followed by yet another Stockdale score.

Attacking off a solid scrum -only a recent addition after such early season struggles – Addison broke through the tackles of his opposing midfielders and gave the ball to his winger.

Brushing past Gareth Davies and through Steff Evans, his long stride carried him home despite the despairing tackle of James Davies.

Discipline was a real focus for Scarlets coming in, having given away 17 against Glasgow in the league last week but the five blasts of the referee’s whistle in the opening quarter were giving Ulster a real foothold.

Twice though they couldn’t take advantage, first when the wind again took Cooney’s effort of the tee and then from a turned over lineout.

Even when under-par, Scarlets are a side who punish such mistakes and, after the latter, Ulster didn’t see the ball again before Steff Evans was across the whitewash. Patchell’s conversion gave his side a lead.

Scarlets looked for the swift follow up but, after a period of high tempo rugby showing off their forwards’ skills, they found an unlikely breakdown nemisis in the shape of Henry Speight.

The Wallaby wing spoke midweek about his desire to belatedly show Ulster fans his best form and he certainly stood tall in the particular passage.

Following up his turnover with a big carry, the space created allowed for a clever kick in behind from Stockdale. It worked out even better than he could have imagined when Patchell’s return serve went out on the full.

The pack rumbled forward with Best breaking off the back to make good ground. When the ball went wide, it was none other than Speight finishing things off.

A consistent theme this season has been the need for an 80-minute performance and the province started the second with the same intent with which they’d ended the first, even if Addison couldn’t believe the ease with which he sliced through the line for Ulster’s third.

The next try would go to Scarlets though, Ulster opened up by a Johnny McNicholl offload that sent Steff Evans over and under the posts.

Again one sensed how Ulster responded would be key, again they summoned a counter when it mattered most.

Nick Timoney – on for Sean Reidy in the first-half – burst through but was stopped just short, only for Ulster to recycle and get the bonus-point try in the corner through Coetzee.

With anything less than a win surely ending Scarlets interest in Europe for this season, Pivac’s men needed two scores. That they didn’t get one with five minutes to go was thanks only to a try-saving intervention inches from their own line from Ludik and then Speight. The line would be breached soon after, and an energy-sapping grandstand finish was ensured.

This time, their efforts would not go unrewarded. This was to be their night.

There’ll be setbacks along the way in what remains a rebuilding job – and they need only to think back to Northampton 2012 to know how these back-to-backs can swing week-to-week – but for now, they can point to what happens when their stars align.

SCARLETS: J McNicholl; T Prydie, J Davies, K Fonotia, S Evans; R Patchell, G Davies; R Evans, K Owens (c), S Lee; L Rawlings, D Bulbring; W Boyde, J Davies, U Cassiem

REPLACEMENTS: R Elias (for Owens, 69), W Jones (for R Evans, 61), W Kruger (for Lee, 59), S Cummings(for Rawlins, 24), D Davis (for Cassiem, 26), S Hidalgo-Clyne (for G Davies, 72), D Jones (for Patchell, 74), H Parkes (for Fonotia,)

ULSTER: L Ludik, H Speight, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Best (c), M Moore; I Henderson, K Treadwell; S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee

REPLACEMENTS: R Herring (for Best, 69), K McCall, T O’Toole (for Moore, 69), M Rea, N Timoney (for Reidy, 24), D Shanahan, J McPhillips (for Burns, 76), D Cave

Referee: A Ruiz

Man of the match: W Addison

Weekend round-up

Last night: Scarlets 24 Ulster 25, Edinburgh 31 Newcastle 13

Today: Exeter v Gloucester, Lyon v Glasgow (both 1pm), Bath v Leinster, Toulon v Montpellier (both 3.15pm), Wasps v Toulouse (5.30pm)

Tomorrow: Munster v Castres, Saracens v Cardiff (both 1pm), Racing 92 v Leicester (3.15pm)

Belfast Telegraph