The return of exquisite scrum-half Ruan Pienaar coincided with Ulster’s quest to keep their very slim Champions Cup qualifying hopes alive.
South African Pienaar, who had returned from nearly three months on the sidelines with a knee injury, was key to Ulster grabbing a bonus-try victory over the Scarlets on Saturday night.
While Pienaar admitted he was rusty, he did score a try and was instrumental in keeping Ulster going forward to take try-scoring chances when they arrived.
Darren Cave added to his try-scoring spree of late while Tommy Bowe showed he was back to his best and captain Rory Best crashed over for that vital fourth try 10 minutes before the end of a stop-start game Ulster never looked like losing.
Pienaar, however, can only get better with more game time and that’s good news for Ulster.
“It as really nice to get back playing again,” said Pienaar, who was yellow-carded four minutes before the end for a deliberate knock-on.
“To get 76 minutes was good. But there is a lot to work on fitness wise and I did feel a little rusty, but all in all very pleased to get back out there again.
Head coach Neil Doak was obviously pleased with the evening’s work, but knows more needs to be achieved.
“We knew what we needed to get done and I was very happy with the outcome,” said Doak. “The conditions changed a bit during the game and it might have stopped us playing free-flowing rugby. But credit to the guys, we played a territory game and put them under pressure and got the scores on the board.
“It was key that we got the bonus which keeps us in the mix and if we can pick something up next week in Llanelli it puts the last two games in better reach. We are still in with a fighting chance.
Doakagreed it was a very attritional game after nine players, five from Ulster, hobbled off with some sort of significant injury.
“We will not know who will be available next week. The physio room did look like a war zone, so a few boys are not looking good for next week, so we will have to see how they come through in the next 48 hours. I suspect a few scans will be necessary.
During the game Ulster lost Stuart McCloskey (arm/shoulder), Stuart Olding (head), Franco vd Merwe (head), Wiehahn Herbst (knee) and Nick Williams (knee). Olding failed to pass the sideline protocols for a head injury, the third game in quick succession for the young international starlet. It now looks as if all five could be absent for next week’s return game.
Meanwhile, man-of-the-match Cave was happy the way Ulster took their chances and boosting his try count.
“I had been on a bit of a drought of late, but it was good to finish a play that we had worked on during the week. It was the same with Tommy’s try of a scrum, a move we have perfected in training. The final try from a maul was very important and it shows that we are a very rounded team.”
There was only one main talking point after the game and that was whether Scarlets full-back Williams was fortunate not to test Ulster’s new shower arrangements in the 36th minute after dumping Louis Ludik on his head. His only saving grace that he didn’t actually lift the player, but he didn’t exactly save him from landing either! In the end referee brandished a yellow.
Ulster scorers: Tries: Cave, Pienaar, Bowe, Best. Cons: Humphreys 2.
ULSTER: Ludik, Bowe, Cave, Olding, Gilroy, Humphreys, Pienaar, Black, Best, Herbst, Tuohy, van der Merwe, Diack, Wilson, Williams.
Replacements: Warwick for Black (78), Herring for Best (77), Fitzpatrick for Herbst (48), A. O’Connor for van der Merwe (48), P. Marshall for Diack (77), C. Ross for Williams (66).
Scarlets scorers: Pens: Priestland 3.
SCARLETS: L. Williams, Robinson, King, S. Williams, Tagicakibau, Priestland, A. Davies, R. Evans, E. Phillips, Lee, Ball, Snyman, A. Shingler, J. Davies, Pitman.
Replacements: Owen for L. Williams (61), S. Shingler for King (79), R. Williams for A. Davies (65), John for R. Evans (72), Myhill for E. Phillips (72), R. Jones for Lee (65), Earle for Ball (62), Rawlins for J. Davies (66). Att: 16,400 Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU).