Ulster got themselves back in the play-off hunt with a 24-9 bonus-point win over the Scarlets at the Kingspan Stadium.
Tries from Darren Cave, Ruan Pienaar, Tommy Bowe, and Rory Best saw Ulster secure maximum points in a scrappy affair where the swirling wind caused both teams problems.
The Scarlets got on the scoreboard with three well-executed Rhys Priestland penalties, but the Welsh side played second fiddle for the majority of this bruising encounter.
Ulster, who led at half-time, were the more clinical and efficient side; controlling the tempo for most of the match.
The ability of the hosts to turn pressure into points meant that the Welshmen were playing catch up from the earliest stages of the game, and the visitors just couldn’t muster enough guile and composure to trouble the Ulster try-line.
The Irish province more than deserved this win, therefore, and they will be delighted with a win that keeps their slender Champions Cup hopes alive, as they seek to become the first team ever to reach the quarter-finals after losing their first two games.
The Scarlets had the better of it in the opening stages, building decent pressure in the Ulster half. And it was the Welsh visitors that grabbed the first points on three minutes when Priestland slotted a simple penalty to give his side a 0-3 lead.
Ulster responded well, and Humphreys had a golden chance to equalise just a minute later, but badly scuffed his effort. The jitters continued on the nine minute mark when the fly-half missed another eminently kickable attempt.
By the end of the first ten minutes, therefore, the Welsh region definitely had the edge, but their cause wasn’t helped when openside James Davies was sin-binned for a late tackle on Humphreys.
The extra numbers worked well for the Ulstermen on 14 minutes when Bowe thundered down the right wing with a powerful run, before offloading for Cave to score the first try of the contest. This time Humphreys made no mistake with the touchline conversion to make it 7-3 to Ulster.
Ulster had now upped the tempo, and increased their advantage on 19 minutes when returning talisman Pienaar made the most of some weak Scarlets tackling to cross. Humphreys converted to make it 14-3.
The game became a little fractured thereafter, with both sides struggling to achieve any real continuity. The Scarlets kept their shape well despite a troubled start, and reduced the deficit to 16-6 on 29 minutes when Priestland landed another three points.
It really wasn’t a great spectacle for much of the first half, and the inclement conditions certainly weren’t conducive to running rugby. But Ulster would have been happy with the extent of their territorial control, and field position.
In that regard, the contribution of Pienaar was immense, and the South African showed Ulster fans what they have been missing for the past two months.
If Ulster were superior for the majority of the first half, the Scarlets remained doggedly in the contest.
They lost a second man to the sin-bin late in the half though when Liam Williams earned a ten-minute break for a tip tackle on Louis Ludik.
The Welsh visitors kept plugging away, and Priestland had another chance before half-time with a penalty from just inside the Ulster half, but the effort drifted wide of the uprights. By the interval, the advantage was assuredly with the hosts, but with everything to play for in the second period.
The second half started brightly enough from an Ulster perspective, but the Irish side suffered a massive blow on 43 minutes when they lost their South African contingent (Wiehahn Herbst and Franco van der Merwe) to injury; to be replaced by Declan Fitzpatrick and Alan O’Connor respectively.
With the hosts undoubtedly aiming for a bonus point win, it was an unwelcome start to the half from their perspective.
It was the visitors, then, that bagged the first points of the second period when Priestland landed a well-struck penalty on 55 minutes to reduce the arrears to a mere five points, leaving the score 14-9 to Ulster.
It was no more than they deserved, having monopolised possession and territory since the break.
But the hosts increased the intensity thereafter, and Bowe sneaked in at the corner on 59 minutes when he managed to get the ball down despite the attention of two Scarlets’ defenders after a lovely wraparound move had created the space.
The TMO deemed the try to be good, but Humphreys missed the conversion to make it 19-9 to his side.
And the hosts put the result beyond doubt on 68 minutes when skipper Best scored the bonus-point try after he positioned himself at the bottom of a carefully crafted driving maul. Humphreys again missed the extra points to leave it 24-9 to the hosts.
The Scarlets toiled admirably right to the final whistle, but frustratingly just couldn’t add to their total, and get over the whitewash.
It was Ulster therefore who took the spoils in this one, and this was undoubtedly victory that was both essential and satisfying for the Irishmen before next week’s return trip to Wales.
Tries: Cave, Pienaar, Bowe, Best
Cons: Humphreys 2
Yellow Card: Pienaar
Pens: Priestland 3
Yellow Cards: J. Davies, L. Williams
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Roger Wilson, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Dan Tuohy, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Andy Warwick, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Alan O’Connor, 20 Clive Ross, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Stuart McCloskey, 23 Michael Allen.
Scarlets: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Harry Robinson, 13 Regan King, 12 Scott Williams (c), 11 Michael Tagicakibau, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Aled Davies, 8 Rory Pitman 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Johan Snyman, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Emyr Phillips, 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Phil John, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 George Earle, 20 Lewis Rawlins, 21 Rhodri Williams, 22 Steven Shingler, 23 Gareth Owen
Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
By Rory McGimpsey