Scarlets pay the penalty as they lose Ulster thriller
THE Scarlets suffered their first defeat in 10 league matches in a thrilling Guinness PRO14 clash against a firedup Ulster in Belfast.
After a slow-burner of a first half, the game burst into life in the second period with both sides swapping scintillating tries.
The defending champions looked like they might have snatched it thanks to a try by returning British Lion Jonathan Davies late in the second half, but Ulster, who had dominated for most of the opening hour, held their nerve with a try by replacement hooker John Andrew three minutes from time sealing the victory.
The Scarlets will rue ill-discipline which had allowed Ulster to push into a 12-3 lead, but with Tadhg Beirne to the fore, they again showed their quality after the break.
However, it was Ulster who sealed a dramatic late triumph in what proved the game of the season so far.
There was plenty of emotion swirling around the Kingspan – five years since former Ulster centre Nevin Spence was killed in a tragic accident at his family farm. The home players wore Spence’s No.12 on their T-shirts during the warmup and there was a minute’s silence prior to kick-off.
A lively start for the Scarlets saw them rewarded with a Leigh Halfpenny penalty after just three minutes, with the champions staying true to their desire to attack at every opportunity.
Some uncharacteristic handling errors from the visitors, forcing the pass at times, saw Ulster grow in confidence and the Scarlets were fortunate to make half-time having not conceded a try.
Three penalties from the cultured boot of former Connacht scrum-half John Cooney did give Ulster a deserved 9-3 advantage at the break, but the home side had claims to a potential penalty try after a rumbling line-out drive was hauled down illegally yards short of the whitewash.
It also needed a crucial steal from centre Hadleigh Parkes to deny a multi-phase attack.
The second half started as the first had ended with Ulster on the front foot and a fourth Cooney success made the visitors pay for more ill-discipline as the penalties against the Scarlets started to rack up.
When the visitors finally put together a decent attack they were rewarded with a second Halfpenny penalty, then the match sparked into life just before the hour mark.
The first Scarlets try came out of nowhere as Ulster again pressed inside the visitors’ 22.
A loose ball was hacked through and it ended with Parkes and Rhys Patchell combining to send Johnny McNicholl over for his fourth try in three matches.
Ulster’s response was rapid with the outstanding Stuart McCloskey making the touchline break that allowed wing Jacob Stockdale to dive over in the corner.
But back came the Scarlets again with a try reminiscent of their brilliant final performance in Dublin in May.
Steff Evans was freed out wide and his inside pass found Lion Jonathan Davies, who had just arrived on the field, for the score.
Halfpenny’s conversion made it 20-17, but man-of-the-match Christian Lealiifano levelled it with a penalty seven minutes from time, then came the dramatic finale with Andrew proving the unlikely hero. Ulster: L Ludik (T Bowe, 51); A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale (P Nelson 72); C Lealiifano, J Cooney (P Marshall 70); K McCall, R Herring (J Andrew, 57), W Herbst (R Ah You, 66), K. Treadwell (R Diack, 58), A O’Connor, M Rea, S Reidy, C Henry (capt; C Ross, 66). Scarlets: L Halfpenny; J McNicholl, H Parkes (J Davies, 52), S Williams, S Evans; R Patchell, G Davies (J Evans, 52); R Evans (W Jones, 70), K Owens (capt; R Elias, 65), S Lee (W Kruger, 57), J Ball (D Bulbring, 52), T Beirne, A Shingler, J Barclay, W Boyde (J Macleod, 70).
In the night’s other PRO14 game, Treviso pulled off a shock 20-17 win at Edinburgh.
> Jonathan Davies goes over for a try