No excuses as Scarlets fail to find a spark in the damp
Scarlets 12, Ulster 19.
HE may have been stripped of his Wales international stars, but Scarlets head coach Simon Easterby was refusing to make any excuses for defeat to Ulster in yesterday's top-of-the-table Pro12 clash in Llanelli.
The West Walians were shorn of around 16 players because of Test commitments and injury and finished a comfortable second best to the league leaders, who themselves opted to rest a couple of their leading lights.
An Aled Thomas penalty with the last kick of the match did salvage a losing bonus point for the Scarlets, but for Easterby it was scant consolation to take from a contest that never caught fire.
"We still had a strong side out there, we went into the game having won last weekend, we were playing at home, there are no excuses from us," said the former Ireland flanker.
"We did get better in the second half, but we lacked accuracy in certain areas and put pressure on ourselves. The scoreboard reflected that we were beaten to most things on the day.
"That losing bonus point might be a factor in five months' time, but right now I am more concerned with us not winning the game."
Ultimately, a first-half interception from Ireland wing Andrew Trimble was the difference in a match dominated by the whistle of referee Peter Fitzgibbon.
The Scarlets did well to claw their way back into the match having trailed 16-3 early in the second half, but they lacked a spark in attack and gave away a number of soft penalties.
In a game that should have been a showpiece for the league, it was a flat, insipid affair with neither coach happy with their side's performance.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe later accused his team of playing dumb rugby and admitted that the Scarlets would be encouraged by their second-half comeback, considering the amount of players they were missing.
The Scarlets had gone into the match without their entire 12-strong Wales contingent, while Ulster opted to rest the likes of Springbok star Ruan Pienaar and No. 8 Chris Henry ahead of the resumption of the Heineken Cup next weekend.
To compound matters the home side were also forced into a late change with Nick Reynolds replacing the injured Gareth Maule at centre.
In damp conditions, fly-half Thomas had an early opportunity to put his side on the scoreboard, only to pull his penalty attempt wide, while opposite number Paddy Jackson did the same from 35 metres out.
Jackson, though, made no mistake moments later after the Scarlets' defensive line had been ruled offside.
With the whistle of Mr Fitzgibbon dominating the breakdown, neither side was able to get any fluency in their game.
South African George Earle produced a couple of driving runs for the Scarlets, but few others were able to break down a muscular Ulster defence.
Thomas landed a superb touchline penalty to level matters after 19 minutes, but it was Ulster who seized control of proceedings when Trimble pounced for the game's only try.
The Ireland wing gambled on the interception with Scarlets numbers free on the outside, and after getting a hand to Gareth Owen's pass, the right wing gathered and raced 60 metres unopposed to the posts.
Jackson's conversion made it 10-3 to the visitors, then the fly-half extended his side's advantage with another penalty after the Scarlets scrum collapsed in front of their own posts.
Trailing 13-3, the Scarlets were desperately in need of some inspiration to spark a second-half challenge. However, it was Ulster who picked up where they left off with Jackson adding another three points after Joe Snyman had been penalised for not rolling away at a ruck.
Thomas reduced the arrears with a second successful penalty for the home side, then made it 16-9 after the Ulster scrum fell foul of the referee.
It prompted Anscombe to bring on international front-rowers Rory Best and Tom Court and they immediately won a penalty at a scrum, which Jackson duly landed to restore his side's ten-point cushion.
Ulster had replacement Dan Tuohy sin-binned for killing the ball on 63 minutes, but Thomas missed one of his easiest kicks of the night and the Scarlets were unable to make an impression on the scoreboard.
A break by replacement scrum-half Aled Davies provided a rare moment of hope in the second period, while Mr Fitzgibbon enraged the home faithful even further by calling a promising attack back for a forward pass.
Then, with the clock ticking into the red, Thomas was handed a chance to pull the Scarlets to within seven points and he stepped up to land a long-range penalty to provide some consolation for the 7,089 crowd.
Despite the loss, the Scarlets remain in second in the league standings, nine points adrift of Ulster and three ahead of Leinster in third.
But Easterby, bolstered by the international cavalry, will demand major improvements before European action resumes with the arrival of Exeter Chiefs on Saturday.