Jono Gibbes marked his first match as Ulster boss with a resounding 59-10 victory over Southern Kings to leave them eight points behind Leinster in the Guinness PRO14.

Craig Gilroy stole the show with a hat-trick of scores, while Rob Lyttle added a brace. Stuart McCloskey, Kieran Treadwell and Darren Cave rounded off a routine evening.

Ulster signalled their intentions from the outset with strong carrying and Craig Gilroy crossed for the first try of the night. In the first 10 minutes, the Kings had given away five penalties. Masixole Banda scored a penalty after 15 minutes which was to be their last score until the 70th minute.

Stuart McCloskey extended Ulster’s lead with another try. The Bangor man ran a great dummy line which fixed the Kings defence and allowed Gilroy the linebreak. McCloskey continued his run to receive the ball from Ulster’s first try scorer to crash over. Over the last few games, Ulster have used McCloskey solely as a ball carrier. At the start of the season he was very good at picking dummy lines to create overlaps. We saw this in the second half and it allowed Ulster to run up a big score.

Ulster controlled the game in the early stages of the half, but were vulnerable around the ruck. The Southern Kings poached at every opportunity and on several occasions which disrupted Ulster’s ball which stopped Ulster’s momentum and resulted in turnover ball. Craig Gilroy scored with two minutes left in the half  to leave Ulster needing one more try for the bonus point.

Three minutes after the break, the bonus point was sealed. Johnny McPhillips crossed for his first senior try after capitalizing on a poor kick and chase from the South African side. Rob Lyttle scored his third try of the season after a superb looping pass from Stuart McCloskey.

Ulster scored one of their tries of the season just before the hour mark. Gilroy finished off a terrific counter attack after McPhillips picked up a spilled ball and the former Methody man finished in the corner. Lyttle scored his second and Ulster’s 7th after another counter attack.

Kings scored their first try through Harry Klaasen with nine minutes remaining but Kieran Treadwell scored his first Ulster try shortly after. Darren Cave grabbed the 9th and final score after a lovely dummy pass which was bought too easily by the Kings’ defence.

Ulster did what was required and got the bonus point. Gilroy was obviously the standout but the Kings defence could not contain Stuart McCloskey. Tonight he showed that he was more than just a crash ball player.

The open game suited McPhillips’ creativity and he played a vital part in two of the tries. With Nelson out, he’s likely to retain the 10 jersey for the match against Edinburgh next Friday. The opposition were not great, but it was pleasing to see him adapt to what was in front of him, something which is criticized of northern hemisphere out halves.

Ruck security in the first half was a problem but it improved when the opposition’s heads dropped. While it was disappointing to see Ulster concede a late try they were defensively solid for the most part. It was a professional performance against fairly poor opposition. Next up is Edinburgh, who having defeated Leinster with a bonus point, remain three points behind Ulster in fourth place.

Ulster: Charles Piutau, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle, Johnny McPhillips, John Cooney; Andy Warwick, John Andrew, Wiehahn Herbst, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney. Replacements: Rob Herring, Kyle McCall, Rodney Ah You, Matthew Dalton, Chris Henry, Jonny Stewart, Darren Cave, Louis Ludik

Photo credit – Ian Humes Photography