Ulster 48 Cardiff 12
Ulster stormed to the top of the United Rugby Championship with a seven-try demolition of Cardiff at Ravenhill.
Three tries in the first-half and a further four after the turn saw the hosts rack up a 48-12 win in a game where those hoping to catch the eye of Ireland coach Andy Farrell made big contributions to the victory.
Having been idle last weekend, the northern province had fallen four points behind their near neighbours Leinster but they had the bonus-point required to overhaul them once again, if perhaps only temporarily, secured with half an hour remaining.
Ulster lost loosehead Andy Warwick before kick-off, prompting an elevation to the number one jersey for Jack McGrath and Callum Reid coming onto the bench, but otherwise it was a side considerably bolstered by returnees.
Skipper Iain Henderson was back after his bout of Covid, pulling on the white jersey for just a third time this season as he looked to bank some valuable minutes ahead of next weekend’s Six Nations trip to Twickenham. Jordi Murphy and John Cooney were back from injury too while James Hume, Nick Timoney and Robert Baloucoune were released from Irish duty to feature.
And it was the latter who opened the scoring with only eight minutes on the clock.
The winger, who has yet to add to his two caps during the Six Nations, made the most of a cross-kick bouncing fortunately back into his arms as he pressed down on the accelerator and sped away from the despairing Cardiff tackles.
Doak converted and the young scrum-half would add a penalty soon after when Willis Halaholo was pinged for tackling from the deck, an incident that saw the Welsh centre sent to the sin bin.
And disaster would befall the 14 on their first short-handed attack. Despite the numerical disadvantage, the visitors looked to have an overlap developing when out-half Jarrod Evans came onto the ball.
Hume expertly timed his dart from the defensive line though and, while he was in his own ‘22’, once he securely brought the ball in one-handed, there was going to be no stopping him from cantering home. After only a quarter of an hour, Ulster led 17-0.
Still, despite the lead not everything was clicking with a scruffy set-piece certainly one area of concern in the first-half. The game lacked rhythm in the second quarter but Cardiff failed to impose themselves during Ulster’s wayward period.
Having played the fewest games in the United Rugby Championship, and indeed not taken the field at all during February, the Welsh region looked decidedly rusty with a crooked line-out in the corner robbing them of the opportunity to strike for their first points of the evening.
And they’d pass up an even more gilt-edged chance before the turn, knocking on when attempting a tap and go after Ulster were caught offside five metres from their own line.
Aled Summerhill stepping on the sideline when it appeared Doak had missed his touch summed up Cardiff’s opening half.
They were made to pay the ultimate price for those transgressions when Ulster went up the other end and, with the clock in the red, Stuart McCloskey crashed over after a scything Nick Timoney break. What looked like it might have been 17-7 was all of a sudden 22-0 with Ulster’s job feeling almost complete.
The second-half began in the same vein as the first with Cardiff squandering another opportunity as Jordi Murphy rose to claim their overthrown line-out in the corner.
After 45 minutes, though, they would belatedly get their opening score of the contest.
It was Kirby Myhill who went over in the corner after Evans and Halaholo had proved the key combination in the build-up.
Rather than prompt the start of some unlikely comeback, Ulster would have the bonus-point wrapped up with half an hour to go. Having created the third, Timoney would score the fourth himself, breaking three tackles to scramble over the line after a sharp offload from Hume.
Even with their return to the top of the URC secured, Ulster called upon their reinforcements with Springbok World Cup winner Duane Vermeulen and the fit-again Cooney summoned from the bench. And Cooney was lining up a conversion only moments later.
Baloucoune went over for what is his sixth score in his last five games thanks to another sparkling show of pace not dissimilar to his effort against Connacht here last month. The winger’s night was over in the next break of play with Aaron Sexton coming on in his place.
And it was the replacement who would score the sixth of the evening with his first senior try. The flying winger, a schoolboy sprinter before he focussed on rugby, didn’t have much to do before dotting down after Hume and Stewart Moore had worked him into an overlap.
There’d be another first with ten minutes remaining. With Cardiff caught not rolling away at the breakdown, Ulster went to the corner and the subsequent maul score was finished off by 20-year-old hooker Tom Stewart for his own maiden try. Cardiff would score the last points of the game when replacement back-rower James Ratti crashed over from close range but it was the sight of the unfortunate Owen Lane stumbling with the line at his mercy two minutes from the end that summed up their frustrating evening.
Ulster: Stewart Moore; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ben Moxham, Billy Burns, Nathan Doak, Jack McGrath, John Andrew, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (CAPT), Jordi Murphy, Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: Tom Stewart (for Andrew, 56), Callum Reid (for McGrath, 40), Gareth Milasinovich (for Moore, 58), Sam Carter (for O'Connor, 58), Duane Vermeulen (for Murphy, 50), John Cooney (for Doak, 50), Ian Madigan (for McCloskey, 62), Aaron Sexton (for Baloucoune, 56)
Cardiff Rugby: Hallam Amos; Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Aled Summerhill; Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Brad Thyer, Kirby Myhill, Dmitri Arhip, Josh Turnbull (capt.), Matthew Screech, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, James Botham
Replacements: Keiron Assiratti (for Myhill, 57), Rhys Carré (for Thyer, 50), Will Davies-King (for Arhip, 42), Teddy Williams (for Screech, 57), James Ratti (for Botham, 57), Jamie Hill (for L WIlliams), Ben Thomas (for Halaholo, 50), Matthew Morgan (for Amos, 50).
Referee: Hollie Davidson (SRU)
Player of the Match: S Moore (ULS)