Ulster came away with a bonus point win from the Arms Park on Saturday night as Danny Wilson’s side spectacularly managed to play themselves out of the game with a series of mistakes. Cardiff now find themselves five points off the Pro12’s top six, and a further five off the play-off places.
Arguably the strongest available Cardiff XV was named by head coach Wilson in the week before the game, with Gethin Jenkins, Lloyd Williams and Alex Cuthbert all returning to the starting line-up. However they were struck by a late withdrawal as Sam Warburton couldn’t re-appear in a Cardiff jersey due to sickness. With the bug also striking down Jarrad Hoeata it meant James Down was called up to start, with Josh Turnbull reverting to flanker and Shane Lewis-Hughes called up to the bench.
Despite this last minute disruption the team still looked comfortable early in the game as Steve Shingler marshalled the backs around the field with Tom James making a clear break before being tackled into touch, while Rey Lee-Lo was also defeated by the touchline as he tried to outpace Luke Marshall.
It was a similar story in defence as Gethin Jenkins’s early turnover saw him kick through for Alex Cuthbert to chase but Ulster scrambled back, while Kris Dacey was also effective at the breakdown. When the away side did manufacture a half-break down the right wing through number eight Sean Reidy the decision to select Blaine Scully at full-back was justified with his excellent tackle bringing the heavier man down comfortably.
The early pressure resulted in Shingler opening the scoring after five minutes with a well-taken penalty from the 10 metre line. However, Ulster always looked dangerous through full-back Charles Piutau and with Cardiff kicking poorly allowing him to counter attack, the away side to were able to have their fair share of possession.
Eventually scrum-half Ruan Pienaar managed to break through the Cardiff defence and although Scully was able to bring him down just short of the try line, he was penalised as he tried to compete at the breakdown and received a yellow card from referee Andy Brace. Ulster went for the try and battered away at the blue wall, with Piutau eventually the man to benefit from the overlap despite a spirited 14-man effort to defend the line.
By the time Scully had returned to play another try had been conceded as Stu McCloskey marked his return from injury by claiming a try. Despite being a man down it was still poor defensively as the centre managed to isolate three forwards in the line, cutting back in from the centres to find the gap and with the full-back in the sin bin he had a clear run to the posts.
Ulster continued to dominate possession and territory during the second half of the first period, and with Cardiff still making the same handling and set piece mistakes that cost them away to Connacht last week the team were making it a real struggle for themselves.
One major mistake would be the clincher to round off a horrid 15 minutes when Lloyd Williams attempted to execute the standard Cardiff exit strategy and box kick our way out of the 22. However the tactic was easily spotted and the Wales scrum-half was charged down. Scully managed to mop up the loose ball but the Ulster forwards had all the momentum, easily counter-rucked and prop Kyle McCall was the beneficiary as he touched down from a yard out.
Three Ruan Pienaar conversions made the scoreline 21-3 and Cardiff were staring down the barrel of a pre-half-time bonus point being conceded. Despite the heavy score it wasn’t even a poor performance at this stage. The yellow card had been a killer, and first up tackling wasn’t fantastic, but the main issue was our lack of game management. Aimless kicking straight to the dangerman Piutau, giving our chasers no chance of competing, was just giving Ulster free front foot ball to capitalise on.
Despite all this though, with the clock on red at the end of the first half, Cardiff finally managed to string a few phases together in the redzone. Alex Cuthbert and Rey Lee-Lo both took the ball to the line as quick ball provided a good platform to attack the last ditch Ulster defence and finally we managed to convert a chance from inside the 22 when Kristian Dacey muscled his way over from a yard.
Steve Shingler missed the conversion but a 8-21 half-time scoreline could have been much worse after a first-half of Cardiff allowing Ulster to dominate. A bit of banging heads together during the break and hopefully we’d be back on track to compete. That was the thought anyway, but when the home kick-off was smashed ridiculously long straight to Charles Piutau who ran straight through the initial chase and up to halfway, it was a sign that little had changed.
Cardiff did see more of the ball despite this early blip, and soon fashioned a decent break down the right hand side when Willis Halaholo and Scully combined to release Cuthbert who seemed on his way to take on Piutau just out from the line before a reckless high tackle Iain Henderson saw penalised and yellow carded.
Shingler kicked us into the corner and from the lineout we set up a driving maul, but next thing the ball was spilled at the back by Josh Turnbull, with Dacey unable to collect the loose ball. Lloyd Williams was on hand to pick up and dive over in the corner but on review it was a knock on from Turnbull and an Ulster scrum awarded.
What was disappointing is that, although there’s no doubt Turnbull did knock on, he was forced to by an Ulster player slapping the ball out of hands having entered via the side of the maul. In fact on a further two occasions during the second half there was, in my opinion, illegally stopped attacking mauls in the Ulster 22 that went unpunished, and these are particularly annoying when things aren’t going your way.
With one 10-minute period of having a man advantage wasted already, Cardiff were granted a second chance not much later when outside centre Luke Marshall also saw yellow as he became the latest Ulster player to infringe at the breakdown.
During this period there were points scored, but it wasn’t Cardiff celebrating as 14-man Ulster took advantage of more handling errors in midfield. A quick turnover saw Tommy Bowe take the ball into the 22, before the away shifted the ball from right-to-left at pace, leaving flanker Chris Henry to crash over despite the best efforts of Matthew Morgan to hold him up.
An hour gone and the bonus point secured, along with a 8-28 scoreline, Ulster were cruising to victory. However, Cardiff weren’t done yet and a change of the half-backs seemed to spark new life into the team. Tomos Williams’ introduction was especially crucial as his quick ball provided a platform to attack from.
This in turn gave the returning Nicky Robinson more space to show off his passing game, even at 34, and it was him who found Willis Halaholo who shaped to the outside before stepping back inside the Ulster defence and finding a clear path to the try line.
King Nicky converted before laying on another try in even more impressive fashion as he took the ball to Ulster’s defensive line, throwing a little dummy before handing off the inside defender and drawing the full-back to give Alex Cuthbert the simplest of run-ins. First receiver play at it’s absolute finest and a further conversion brought the scores to 22-28 with a little over five minutes to go.
There was a definite buzz around the ground, and I forget how much I mentioned in the next minute about how Robinson was destined to lead us to victory from the brink of defeat, but unfortunately the wheels exploded off that pipe dream when just a few minutes later he was charged down trying to clear Cardiff lines and Darren Cave scored Ulster’s fifth and nailed our coffin shut.
In fairness to Nicky it was always going to be tough to get up to speed straight away after six months of retirement, but it was particularly harsh for his mistake to have such costly consequences. Despite that there were definitely flashes of his class, a 20 metre double miss-pass being the highlight aside from the try assists. Long live the King!
When the 80 minutes were up and the game drew to an end with yet another Cardiff handling error the 22-35 scoreline made for rough reading, and the statistic of five losses in six Pro12 games makes September seem like a distant dream of many years ago.
There’s only so much positivity that can be taken from each game as, just like last week, we are very close to putting together a winning performance, but there’s no point saying that every week and not adding to our points tally. At some point you have to say that making largely simple mistakes and throwing away matches every week is not acceptable, and I think we are there now.
The players need to spend a week getting drilled on handling and tackling in the morning, before spending the rest of the day watching videos of Munster away and Glasgow at home, because they are seriously lacking the confidence and could do with being reminded of how they played early in the season. They are the same group of players after all, we have seen what they can do.