Ulster put in a classy performance to defeat the Scarlets 28-17 at Ravenhill on Friday, booking their spot in the RaboDirect PRO12 final on May 25.
Tries from Tommy Bowe, Robbie Diack, and Tom Court helped an industrious Ravenhill outfit secure the trip to the RDS in Dublin on May 25.
The Ulstermen, who led at half-time, were not at their fluid best, but had enough in the locker to overcome the tenacious and determined Scarlets.
The Welsh responded through Gareth Davies and Sione Timani, but ultimately were unable to match the intensity of the Irish side. Thus the first PRO12 semi was a little more one sided than anticipated. But Ulster will be exhilarated at their progress.
The home team got off to a promising start, exhibiting some efficient passing and lines of running. But the fluency of their play was hampered by some messy handling errors.
As it was, it was the Scarlets who opened the points-scoring proceedings on four minutes, through a well-taken kick by late replacement, Owen Williams. Pienaar leveled the scoreline two minutes later through his trusty boot.
Williams had a golden opportunity to increase the Scarlets' advantage on 16 minutes, but his well-struck effort careered off the woodwork.
Both sides were unnecessarily impeded on 18 minutes, when Andrew Trimble and Liam Williams were yellow-carded for a scuffle. The disruption unquestionably benefited Ulster more, as the hosts camped themselves in the visiting 22. After a series of infringements, Ireland winger Bowe squeezed in at the corner on 23 minutes. Pienaar duly converted to make it 10-3.
Pienaar squandered a gilt-edged chance to extend their advantage on the half-hour mark, but miscued his kick.
Although the Scarlets were competing ferociously in every facet of the game, it was hard to resist the conclusion that Ulster were achieving ascendancy in this phase of the game. That promise was delivered on 34 minutes when South African blindside Diack crashed over for the second try of the evening. Pienaar missed the subsequent conversion, however.
The hosts' scrum was now putting the Welshmen under all sorts of pressure. One such effort extended Ulster's lead on the cusp of half-time, as Pienaar slotted a penalty on the 40-minute mark to make it 18-3. Few could deny that the Irish province, although scrappy, were well worth their lead.
The hosts started the second-half in similar vein, pressurising the Scarlets' 22. Their intensity yielded dividends on 43 minutes, when Irish international loosehead Court bulldozed over from close range. Piennar nailed the conversion, making it 25-3.
The Scarlets' effort was not assisted by a couple of injuries at the outset of the second period. The match now took on an altogether more ragged complexion, as the conditions began to deteriorate under foot. Both sets of kickers resorted to a round of territorial ping-pong. But it was the Scarlets that broke the monotony on 60 minutes when Gareth Davies elegantly danced through the Ulster cover to score.
The Welshmen undid their good work two minutes later by conceding a penalty straight in front of the Ulster posts. Pienaar punished the visitors for their profligacy to make it 28-10.
It has to be said that the Welsh visitors displayed remarkable tenacity, and definitely were the superior team in the final quarter. Replacement Timani scored a thoroughly deserved consolation on 78 minutes, with his effort being converted by Owen Williams. But the hosts clung on to secure the final berth they coveted so much.
Tries: Bowe, Diack, Court
Pen: Pienaar 3
Tries: G Davies, Timani
Con: O Williams 2
Pen: O Williams
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (c), 3 Declan Fitzpatrick, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Mike McComish, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Michael Allen, 23 Peter Nelson.
Scarlets: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Andy Fenby, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Aled Davies, 8 Josh Turnbull, 7 Rob McCusker (capt), 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Johan Synman, 4 George Earle, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Phil John.
Replacements: 16 Emyr Phillips, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Jacobie Adriannse, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Sione Timani, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Gareth Owen.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Andrew Mcmenemy (Scotland), Adrian Graves (Scotland)
Television match official: Iain Ramage (Scotland)
By Rory McGimpsey