Ulster 30-12 Newport-Gwent Dragons
Friday 11th February @ Ravenhill
Ulster kept their PRO12 play-off push on course with a bonus point win over an extremely limited Dragons side on Friday night. In what was a week of disorder at the province, with the public revelation of the long-standing decision not to renew Brian McLaughlin’s contract as coach, Ulster will be happy with the five points gained on a wet night at Ravenhill. This Dragons team was blunt in attack and has definite concentration issues. Despite prolonged spells of possession, the Welsh region never looked like manufacturing a try-scoring opportunity.
That said, the Dragons’ start to the game was lively. Ex-Wales U20 international outhalf Jason Tovey gave his side the lead with a long-range penalty after Craig Gilroy failed to release the tackled player. Ruan Pienaar had the chance to draw Ulster level with a penalty of his own soon after but was wide to the right from 40 metres out.
Tovey’s kicking from hand was poor all day, and it was from his kick directly into touch that Ulster scored the opening try. From just outside the Dragons’ 22, hooker Andy Kyriacou hit Robbie Diack coming short at the front of the lineout and after juggling the ball, the South African No.8 went through Jamie Smith’s tackle to touch down. From the right-hand touchline, Pienaar was narrowly off target to the left.
Ulster then scored almost directly from the Dragons’ restart with a try that had McLaughlin’s fingerprints all over it. McLaughlin has always encouraged his charges to play with freedom and that’s exactly what Ulster did. From inside their own half, the ball swept through ten sets of hands, starting and finishing with Ruan Pienaar. In between, Gilroy beat two mean and Willie Faloon offloaded off the deck for one of the best tries in the PRO12 so far this season. Pienaar added the gloss with the conversion from under the posts.
Ulster’s indiscipline allowed the Dragons to stay in touch through two Tovey penalties. First, Lewis Stevenson grabbed the arm of Adam Jones while in the air at a lineout. Gilroy was the culprit several minutes later as he entered a ruck from the side. Needless penalties, as the Dragons attack was completely toothless. A strong scrum from Ulster then resulted in Nathan Williams dropping his bind. From the penalty, Pienaar extended the Ulster lead back out to 15-9 before half-time.
With the rain starting to sheet down, the opening ten minutes of the second-half became loose and scrappy, ending with another silly penalty against Ulster. Paddy McAllister, just on the pitch, didn’t roll away after tackling, and Tovey knocked over the easy three-pointer. However, the Dragons’ lack of concentration struck again as Ulster scored immediately from their own restart.
The Welsh side failed to get under Ian Humphreys’ hanging drop-off and Ian Whitten pounced on the bouncing ball. The centre offloaded to Mike McComish and swiftly recycled ball allowed Humphreys’ skip pass to send Gilroy over in the right corner. The winger finished the move with a strong fend on Martyn Thomas. Pienaar was wide to the left again from the tee.
The Dragons were given an early opportunity to get themselves back into the game when Faloon was sent to the bin following Ulster’s repeated infringements at the breakdown. However, the Dragons’ subsequent attack was lateral and failed to take advantage of the extra man. Dan Tuohy put in some big hits as Ulster defended strongly.
Faloon’s return didn’t halt the Dragons’ favourable amount of possession, but time and again the Welsh side lost their concentration in good positions. Two promising lineouts in the Ulster 22 both brought knock-ons at the tail of the maul. A yellow card to Whitten for a stupid slap-down at ruck-time gave the Dragons yet another chance out of touch inside the Ulster 22. This time referee Carlo Damasco pinged them for obstruction.
With Ulster looking for the fourth try that would secure a crucial bonus point, a penalty on the halfway line with two minutes remaining looked like the perfect opportunity to kick to the corner. But captain John Afoa made a strange decision to go for goal, and Pienaar duly obliged, banging over the three points from 40 metres out. Ulster got their chance at the death though, and took it well.
After a knock-on by Robert Sidoli, Nevin Spence was first to the loose ball and his offload to Ali Birch on halfway looked to have sent replacement Ali Birch over. However, the substitute back-row was hauled down just 5 metres out. After a few phases close to the breakdown, the ball was sent out to Humphreys and he put Stefan Terblanche through a massive hole in the Dragons’ defence. Pienaar completed the scoring with the last kick of the game. This win means Ulster move up to 5th in the PRO12 table.
Ulster: 15. Adam D’Arcy (Danielli, 57), 14. Craig Gilroy, 13. Ian Whitten, 12. Nevin Spence, 11. Stefan Terblanche, 10. Ian Humphreys (Marshall, 64), 9. Ruan Pienaar, 8. Robbie Diack, 7. Willie Faloon (Birch, 64), 6. Mike McComish, 5. Dan Tuohy, 4. Lewis Stevenson (Barker, 73), 3. John Afoa (capt.), 2. Andy Kyriacou (Brady, 55), 1. Callum Black (McAllister, 48). Subs: 16. Nigel Brady, 17. Paddy McAllister, 18. Adam Macklin, 19. Timothy Barker, 20. Alistair Birch, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Mike Allen, 23. Simon Danielli.
Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Fabio Beretta.