Ulster open their PRO14 campaign with an entertaining bonus point win at home to Benetton Rugby on Friday night.
James Hume, Stewart Moore, Michael Lowry, Marcell Coetzee and Adam McBurney were on the scoresheet with John Cooney adding four conversions and Bill Johnston slotting a fifth.
The home side came bursting out of the blocks with ball in hand. Matthew Rea, Marcell Coetzee, Iain Henderson and Sean Reidy established a platform and good support provided quick ball allowing Michael Lowry and his backs to exploit a back pedalling Benetton defence.
We saw an early moment of class from Moore on his first start for Ulster: a show and go created space and the former Ballymena Academy player to exploit. However it was his centre partner, James Hume, who opened the scoring, touching down after a grubber kick from John Cooney into the goal area.
There wasn’t much line speed on the Benetton defence in the opening half hour and this allowed Lowry to play very flat to the gainline and the ball carriers to make easy metres. It’s a lot easier to play the rugby Ulster want to with quick ball and a pack on top.
Moore scored three minutes later receiving the ball off a John Cooney support line after Jacob Stockdale was able to free his arms in the tackle. Ulster could not have wished for a better start after a poor run of results recently, but Benetton showed they would pose problems for Dan McFarland‘s men.
Italy U20 international Paolo Garbisi was sharp in only his second appearance for Benetton and had a good battle with Lowry at out half. Garbisi was not afraid to take the ball to the line with put Ulster under pressure and resulted in linebreaks from Marco Zanon and Ignavio Brex respectively.
They showed they were able to counter Ulster with Ratuva Tavuyara bursting out from his own 22. Barring a handling error from the Benetton, Ulster were scrambling and Kieran Crowley will have been disappointed not to convert the opportunity.
Benetton’s ball carriers exploited weak Ulster defending around the fringes of the ruck. Ratuva and Monty Ioane also found themselves picking from the base of the ruck to great defence. I think this is partially down to the pace of the game, but pillar/guard defence should be the first players set once a ruck has formed.
Lowry added a third before a yellow card for Stockdale 32 minutes into the game put the home side on the back foot for the rest of the first half. It was a deserved yellow for a mistimed and lazy arm but certainly not worth further sanction. Tries from Garbisi and Braam Steyn levelled the game for the visitors.
I don’t think Ulster managed the game well during this period. Despite playing with such pace, a slower tempo would have prevented more ball in play time therefore decreasing the amount of damage Benetton could have inflicted. An overthrown lineout on half way resulted in turnover ball and a Monty Ioane run put Ulster back on their own five metre line before being bundled into touch. Although it led to nothing it was a sign of things to come.
After a neat grubber into the Ulster 22, John Cooney‘s box kick found Tuvuyara who ran it back, beating the first line of defence. Ulster were never able to recover and several phases later, Steyn scored the visitors third try. The nature of the kick chase suggests the scrum half was aiming for touch as the kick was too long for any player to contest. A lineout would have eaten up another 20-25 seconds of the sin bin period and allowed Ulster to get organised in defence.
Garbisi gave his side the lead two minutes into the second half before Marcell Coetzee crossed for the bonus point try. After a frenetic first half the game slowed down. Benetton were in chase of a losing bonus point and a try bonus point but Ulster were more comfortable in defence than before the break. Adam McBurney gave his side a buffer zone with a try on 73 minutes.
Overall, it was a solid performance. Matty Rea, Sean Reidy and Marcell Coetzee carried very well with Rea ending up as Stephen Ferris’ choice for man of the match. I thought Michael Lowry was excellent in his first start at out half for Ulster. He took the ball very flat to the line against a back pedalling Benetton defence and was not afraid to carry himself. The midfield trio of Lowry, Moore and Hume looks very good going forward.
David McCann and Gareth Milasinovich saw their first taste of action in the senior jersey. McCann made a few big carries in his 24 minutes on the pitch while Milasinovich came on inside for the last 11 minutes.
There is plenty to work on. Restarts were a shambles as Ulster lost four of them, gifting easy possession to opposition. As mentioned, the decision making when a man down could have been better and I think we would have seen a more comfortable victory.
Ulster face a trip to the Liberty Stadium to take on Ospreys next, a fixture where Dan McFarland‘s side were woeful in last season. The Welsh region convincingly defeated Edinburgh at Murrayfield last night and it will be a tough ask to go and win in Swansea, although it is a place where Ulster have had a small bit of success over the years.