If Ulster were looking for a slingshot into next week’s big European Cup quarter-final, they failed miserably and a very ordinary performance will hardly have Northampton shaking in their boots.
However, thanks to two tries by the returning Ian Humphreys, they still managed to dog it out in typical fashion, which in one aspect is a good portent.
The one, and probably only, big bonus was the set-pieces, where the return of BJ Botha helped put Scarlets in all sorts of trouble.
Playing with a gusting breeze, Ulster struggled to get their hands on the ball in the early stages as the Scarlets dominated. The Welsh side were well worth their 3-0 advantage midway through the half thanks to Stephen Jones’s ninth-minute penalty. Any ball that Ulster did manage to pilfer they quickly gave it away again, thanks to silly errors. Ruan Pienaar missing two kicks at goal didn’t help either.
It was only when Humphreys conjured up a magical moment in the 28th minute that Ulster finally shrugged aside their lethargy.
Humphreys looked to fire an inside ball but instead executed a perfect dummy to waltz through a gap and skip out of Rhys Priestland’s tackle to go in under the posts.
The spark was finally ignited for Ulster and Andrew Trimble was bundled into touch at the corner flag after a typical surge along the right wing.
Another Jones penalty brought the Scarlets to within a point before Pienaar finally found his range with two sweetly-hit penalties, one from 58 metres, to give Ulster a rather fortuitous 13-6 half-time lead.
That lead was quickly reduced after only two minutes of the restart when poor midfield defence allowed Regan King to run through a gap to send fellow centre Jon Davies sprinting into the corner.
Scarlets continued on the attack and Gareth Maule was only denied a touchdown after a review upstairs.
It took a yellow card for Scarlets’ Josh Turnbull, for reckless use of the boot in the 54th minute, to get sloppy Ulster firing again. But their dash was only temporary as they fell into their bad old ways again.
To their credit, Ulster kept battling away and it was another piece of individualism that took them further ahead. An under-used Simon Danielli finally burst onto the scene with a great crashing run from halfway. Although he was caught, good support work by Tom Court enabled the ball to be recycled and allow Humphreys to trot in for his second try.
Scarlets got some reward in injury time when replacement flanker Aaron Shingler intercepted a Pienaar pass, swatted aside a tackle by Humphreys to run in at the corner for Priestland to convert.
Scorers for Ulster: Tries: Humphreys 2. Cons: Pienaar 2. Pens: Pienaar 2.
Scorers for Scarlets: Tries: Davis, Shingler. Cons: Priestland. Pens: Jones 2.
ULSTER: A D’Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, capt, BJ Botha (McAllister, 65), J Muller, D Tuohy, R Diack (Barker, 76), P Wannenburg, W Faloon (Henry, 69).
SCARLETS: R Priestland; G Maule, R King (Williams, 49-60), J Davies (Williams, 70), M Stoddart; S Jones (Evans, 40), T Knoyle; I Thomas (Jones, 77), M Rees, capt (Phillips, 80), R Thomas (Edwards, 73), L Reed, R McCusker (Lyons, 70), J Turnbull, J Edwards (Shingler 78), B Morgan.
Referee: Graham Knox (SRU).