Despite a strong start and a perfect 10 points secured in the Pro14, the Scarlets faced their biggest challenge of the season as they traveled to Kingspan to face the also unbeaten Ulster.
With Captain, Ken Owens, playing his first game since May following an extended break after the Lions tour, Lions Player of the Series, Jonathan ‘Foxy’ Davies on the bench and Leigh Halfpenny and Jake Ball starting, the strength of the Scarlets’ team was testament to the importance of gaining another important win on Irish soil.
The visitors started in typical Scarlets fashion and were rewarded with an early penalty opportunity for Leigh Halfpenny who’s successful kick gave the Welsh region a 0 – 3 lead.
Ulster got the opportunity to level the scores as Aaron Shingler was penalised for kicking the ball at the ruck. Scrum Half John Cooney’s successful kick brought the score-line to 3 points all.
It was the home team that threatened to open the try count following an extended advantage play, however, an immense defensive display from the Scarlets denied the Ulstermen. A heroic tackle and steal from Hadleigh Parkes after 21 phases of play saved the day and offered the visitors a chance to clear their lines.
Ulster were able to take the lead through a second Cooney penalty that followed a rather dubious period from referee Marius Mitrea who wrongly penalised Gareth Davies for off-side along with an incorrect line-out decision.
Another penalty for Cooney made it three from three as Ulster increased their lead to 9 points to 3 at half time as the home side commanded the end of the half by starving the Scarlets of any possession.
The second half continued in very much the same vein as the first ended. A combination of refereeing decisions and basic errors made it painful watching for the Scarlets faithful. Cooney added a fourth penalty to further increase the Ulster lead to 12 points to 3 as Wayne Pivac attempted to stem the flow by using the bench.
The Scarlets finally managed to get their hands on the ball and string together some passes and were awarded for their efforts with a penalty attempt for Halfpenny as Ulster were lucky not to be down to 14 men for a deliberate knock-on. The Full Back’s successful kick put the Scarlets back within a score – 12 points to 6.
Completely out of the blue, the visitors secured the first try of the evening. A hack through from Halfpenny allowed Steff Evans to demonstrate his pace to win the ball. A break from Hadleigh Parkes fed Patchell who released Johnny McNicholl for his fourth try of the season. Halfpenny added the conversion to give the Scarlets a slender 13 points to 12 lead.
The lead didn’t last for long though as Ulster’s response was almost immediate. A mis-tackle from McNicholl saw Centre McCloskey break and put Jacob Stockdale over in the corner… 17 points to 13. Cooney missed the conversion, his first miss of the match.
The impact of Jonathan ‘Foxy’ Davies was evident as suddenly the Scarlets were able to find space in attack. Superb hands from John Barclay to Steff Evans eventually released the Fox who strolled in for his first try. The conversion from Halfpenny once more put the Scarlets in the lead – 17 points to 20.
With the game entering its final 10 minutes, a penalty from Christian Lealiifano, his first penalty of the evening, brought the score level once more – 20 points all.
Unfortunately, another mis-tackle saw former Osprey Tommy Bowe pass to replacement Hooker, John Andrew who crossed for Ulster’s second try. Lealiifano added the conversion to put his side back in the lead – 27 points to 20 leaving the Scarlets a couple of minutes to turn their losing bonus point into a draw in a tense ending to the match.
For the neutral, it was a thrilling game of rugby and despite being starved of the ball in the first half, the defending Champions did demonstrate glimpses of the attacking rugby that won them the title. However, following a nine-match unbeaten run, the Scarlets had to settle for the losing bonus point as Ulster secured the victory 27 points to 20.
Next weekend, the Scarlets are back home in Parc y Scarlets where they face Edinburgh next Saturday evening, 23rd September 2017. Kick-off is as 7.35pm.
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