Gloucester kicked their Heineken Cup challenge off in fine style with a 32-14 victory over Ulster at Ravenhill on Friday.
The match was set for 80 minutes and that is how long they stayed on the field, but in fact the match, as a result, was over after 23 minutes. By then the Gloucester visitors were leading 22-0 and had their bonus point. If that was all that counted the match was over.
The first half produced seven tries, 5-2 in Gloucester's favour. The second half produced none, just a solitary penalty to have any effect on the scoreboard. The second half was a choppy affair. Gloucester had the wind - and the rain for a while - but lacked the zest of the first 23 minutes. They went into show-nothing mode.
Gloucester had four distinct advantages. They won the tackle, in both aspects of the tackle. They tackled with thunderous efficiency and allowed Ulster only slow ball back from the tackle while they won quick ball when tackled. They scrummed with power, at times turning the Ulster scrum into a shambles. They handled with confidence and skill, especially into the wind in the first half and they ran straight. Whether the ball-carrier was a forward or a back did not matter, for he would run straight. Mike Tindall did it and Peter Buxton did it and so did the others. It was a fine performance by the visitors.
Ulster tried. They got stuck in. They had good moments. But they made errors. Perhaps it was the ferocity of the Gloucester defence that shook them into error; perhaps it was the malaise of doubt that is, apparently, besetting Irish rugby.
All Ulster won was the penalty count - 10-4 in their favour.
Ulster's rickety season persists.
Gloucester's young Ryan Lamb at flyhalf set up the first try when he held the pass back and then sent angular Akapusi Qera running through a gap. The big Fijian went off swerving and stepping till, stumbling, he was tackled. Back the ball came to Lamb who nudged a gentle grubber into the left corner where massive Lesley Vainikolo fell on the ball. 5-0 after 6 minutes.
Ulster had some good moments as Tommy Bowe broke and Neil Best charged but then Best knocked on for a scrum in the Gloucester's 22. From the scrum Gloucester went right. Tindall timed a perfect pass to Iain Balshaw who surged before he gave to speedy James Simpson-Daniel who zipped down the right touch-line. Harassed, he gave inside to Balshaw who gave inside to Tindall who raced a long way to score. 10-0.
Gloucester could have scored again when hooker (sic) Olivier Azam collected a stray kick by Mark McCrea and footed delicately ahead but Justin Harrison saved brilliantly before Simpson-Daniel.
The next try was not long in coming and it started when Vainikolo used his bulk to bump off two defenders and deliver a pass to Tindall as the third got in close. Back the ball went to Lamb who has no bulk but has magic feet. He danced past three, stretched and scored. This time he converted. 17-0 after 17 minutes.
Ulster then went on a serious attack but when Paddy Wallace passed back inside to Bowe he found Lamb instead and the delicate flyhalf set off from inside his 22. Isaac Boss was hunting him down and Lamb passed to Simpson Daniel who had cut across on his left and the wing scored. 22-0 after 23 minutes and the bonus point.
Again an Ulster error produced the next score. Their scrum buckled but they got the ball only to lose it in a driving tackle by Luke Narraway. The ball bobbled about and the next thing Balshaw was racing 48 metres down the right for a score. Lamb converted. 29-0 after 28 minutes.
Ulster scored the next two tries.
First Andrew Trimble broke when Ulster set up an attack off a partly charged ball. Tackled at the line by Vainikolo, Trimble managed to control the ball enough for Matt McCullough to plunge over for the try which Wallace converted. 29-7 after 30 minutes.
Ulster then battered at the Gloucester line. They had a line-out on the right, went left and then switched play back to the right where Boss went close. Gloucester were penalised and Ulster tapped and bashed again. On advantage they passed to the left where Wallace did a dummy and a waggle to nip between Tindall and Vainikolo to score. He converted and the half-time whistle went with the score 29-14.
There were no tries in the second half. The nearest was from a Lamb grubber.
When Ulster handling broke down Narraway footed through to force a five-metre line-out which Gloucester mauled but Ulster stood firm and the attackers conceded a penalty for holding on.
Narraway had a good charge, Tindall broke, Mark Bartholomeusz had a swerving run but Anthony Allen tackled Bowe - and was hurt in the process and McCrea had a run.
But the only score was a penalty by Lamb.
Some great players came off the bench late in the game - David Humphreys for Ulster and Marco Bortolami, Chris Paterson and Christian Califano for Gloucester.
Man of the Match: There were good performances from Isaac Boss for Ulster but it was the men of the West Country who showed up best - Iain Balshaw, James Simpson-Daniel, Mike Tindall, Peter Buxton, Luke Narraway, Rory Lawson and our Man of the Match Ryan Lamb.
Tries: McCullough, Wallace
Cons: Wallace 2
Tries: Vainikolo, Tindall, Simpson-Daniel, Lamb, Balshaw
Cons: Lamb 2
Ulster: 15 Bryn Cunningham, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Andrew Trimble, 12 Rob Dewey, 11 Mark McCrea, 10 Paddy Wallace, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Neil Best, 6 Matt McCullough, 5 Carlo Del Fava, 4 Justin Harrison, 3 Bryan Young, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Justin Fitzpatrick
Replacements: 16 Neil Brady, 17 Declan Fitzpatrick, 18 Ryan Caldwell, 19 Keiron Dawson, 20 Kieran Campbell, 21 David Humphreys, 22 Mark Bartholomeusz
Gloucester: 15 Iain Balshaw, 14 James Simpson-Daniel, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Anthony Allen, 11 Lesley Vainikolo, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Rory Lawson, 8 Luke Narraway, 7 Akapusi Qera, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Alex Brown, 4 Peter Buxton (c), 3 Carlos Nieto, 2 Olivier Azam, 1 Nick Wood
Replacements: 16 Andy Titterrell, 17 Christian Califano, 18 Marco Bortolami, 19 Gareth Delve, 20 Mike Prendergast, 21 Chris Paterson, 22 Olly Morgan.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)