Scar­lets pay the penalty as they lose Ul­ster thriller

Western Mail - - SPORT - Rob Lloyd Rugby cor­re­spon­dent sport@waleson­

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

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