Ulster’s strong finish is enough on the night
Andrew’s late try seals the victory as game bursts into life in the second half Emotional tributes paid to Nevin Spence on the fifth anniversary of his tragic death
It seemed appropriate on the night that was in it that Ulster surged their way late on to secure a dramatic triumph by halting the Scarlets’ impressive winning run which stretched back to last season.
Indeed, the result – thanks to Edinburgh losing to Treviso – took Ulster to the top of Conference B and was no mean feat considering they went into the game without the injured Marcell Coetzee, Charles Piutau and Jean Deysel never mind their Lions trio who are still not available.
The game only really came to life in the second half when all four tries in the game were scored – Ulster had led 9-3 at the break– in what was a frenetic finish.
Indeed, for Jacob Stockdale and sub John Andrew’s late try, the off-loading work of Stuart McCloskey was critical which was appropriate as he was wearing the number 12 shirt on an evening of high emotion .
Prior to the game there were tributes to Nevin Spence on the fifth anniversary of his tragic death in a farming accident along with his father and brother with Ulster’s players warming up wearing the number 12 jersey in tribute.
After the minute’s applause and silence before kick-off, the champions showing their intent from the off by putting width on the ball and testing Ulster’s defence.
The first points, though, for a Scarlets side with all three Lions on board fell to Leigh Halfpenny’s boot after some sloppy work from Luke Marshall at the breakdown. This was evened out by John Cooney’s first effort on 18 minutes after the Scarlets infringed at a lineout.
The Scarlets were, admittedly, a tad ambitious in their desire to give the ball air and this helped Ulster who had the upper hand in the first half and, if they had been more accurate would have collected a couple of tries. Indeed, Christain Lealiifano’s’ delightful cross-kick put Jacob Stockdale in space but the home side couldn’t finish and then a driving maul was held up just on the half hour.
Still, two visits into Scarlets’ territory brought quick-fire penalties from Cooney – though the home side ought to have scored a try off one of their driving mauls – which put the home side 9-3 up at the break.
Ulster started the second half as they had left things off in the first 40 minutes though Leali’ifano was floored late by Hadleigh Parkes and then was the victim of a great poach by Tadhg Beirne as he surged for the line minutes later.
Still, Ulster kept the scoreboard ticking along with Cooney’s fourth strike, from long range, coming on 52 minutes after a late tackle though it was the Scarlets who hit back next, four minutes later, with Halfpenny landing a close range penalty after McCloskey had strayed offside.
The Scarlets then broke out of their half on a rare sortie which saw Rhys Patchell put Johnny McNicholl through to dot down on 61 minutes and Halfpenny’s conversion put them ahead for the first time since early in the first half.
Ulster quickly hit back though with Sean Reidy bursting through and putting Stockdale in the corner though Cooney failed to add the extras.
But, with the game really opening up, Steff Evans supplied sub Jonathan Davies with a great score worked down Ulster’s left flank. Halfpenny converted and the Scarlets led 20-17.
With Cooney taken off, Lealiifano levelled the scores with a penalty on 72 minutes. Then with four minutes remaining a marvellous Tommy Bowe break saw Luke Marshall spin out a long pass for sub John Andrew to gallop over and Leali’ifano added the conversion.
Ireland captain Rory Best on crutches as he talks to Ulster team-mates Iain Henderson and Chris Henry before last night’s Pro14 match at Kingspan Stadium.