As feared, Ulster too good for under-strength Scarlets
RAVENHILL'S iconic old grandstand may be facing demolition, but it was the Scarlets who saw their Pro12 title hopes crushed to rubble in a one-sided play-off semi-final in Belfast.
A week after being bulldozed at their own ground by Treviso, Simon Easterby's side at least avoided similar ignominy with a spirited late showing that made the final score 28-17.
But for the most part, Ulster had been dominant in all facets of play to book their place in the Grand Final later this month.
Apart from a bright opening 20 minutes and a gutsy finale, the Scarlets were outmuscled, out-thought and outgunned by a superior home outfit possessing too much guile and grunt all over the park.
Their cause wasn't helped by a glut of injuries that included Wales squad members Scott Williams and Ken Owens, who was stretchered off early in the second half, and South African lock George Earle, who could barely keep his feet as he was helped from the field.
And after a season that had started with so much promise, it was a sobering way to finish for Easterby and his squad.
A brilliant solo try from replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies and a late score for Tongan Sione Timani provided some cheer for the travelling Scarlets contingent.
But ultimately the bookmakers had got it spot on in making the last remaining Welsh region rank outsiders.
To their credit, the Scarlets dug deep in the second half to give the scoreline some respectability when it could have been a rout.
But they made far too many errors to give themselves any chance of making a first Grand Final appearance.
Much had been said in the build-up about proving points and bouncing back in the wake of last weekend's humiliating 41-17 home defeat to Treviso.
The most significant, though, was uttered by Easterby, who had admitted it was not about talking a good game, it was going out there and delivering in a one-off knockout.
All too often this season the Scarlets have failed to rise to the big occasion — league defeats to the Ospreys and Heineken Cup losses to Leinster and Exeter among them.
This clash at Ravenhill offered the West Walians an opportunity of redemption.
Overwhelming underdogs beforehand, the Scarlets could at least draw inspiration from their form on the road in the Pro12 this season with wins at Glasgow, Connacht, Munster and Edinburgh ultimately the reason why they have reached this stage for the first time.
The Scarlets, though, were dealt a cruel blow before kick-off.
Wales international Rhys Priestland was due to make his first start at fly-half since returning from a ruptured Achilles, but he didn't feel comfortable with the injury in the warm-up and was withdrawn minutes beforehand.
It meant Owen Williams was restored to the No. 10 jersey and Aled Thomas was drafted in on to the bench.
Early adventure from the Scarlets, which saw wing Andy Fenby race 40 metres down the touchline, led to a fourth-minute penalty from Owen Williams.
But the lead was quickly erased when the visitors were penalised at the breakdown and Pienaar slotted over from straight in front.
There was a great atmosphere at Ravenhill with a vocal band of travelling Scarlets supporters making themselves heard amongst a 10,000-plus crowd.
And, for a short while they had plenty to shout about as the Scarlets, with a typical Ravenhill wind behind them, enjoyed the better of territory and possession.
Williams struck the upright with a penalty on 17 minutes, then a scything break from Ulster full-back Jared Payne almost led to the game's first try.
While a scuffle broke out five metres from the Scarlets line, Payne appeared to have touched down after North had failed to gather a crossfield kick.
But referee Alain Rolland had already blown up and after initially awarding the Ulster the penalty, he showed yellow to the warring factions, Liam Williams and Andrew Trimble, and proceeded to reverse the decision.
It was a big let-off for the Scarlets, but the respite was shortlived.
Further pressure from the home side led to former Ospreys favourite Tommy Bowe stepping inside his soon to be Lions team-mate North for the try, and when Pienaar converted superbly from the touchline Ulster were firmly in the box seat.
The home dominance was stemming from the breakdown area with the Scarlets, crowned the Pro12's 'Collision Kings' at the league's annual awards dinner, coming off very much second best in contact.
Another penalty saw Pienaar drill a kick into the corner and from the resultant line-out catch and drive, flanker Robbie Diack touched down.
Pienaar hit the upright with the conversion, but after the Scarlets scrum was driven back on their 22, the Springbok added another three points to leave the visitors with a mountainous challenge in the second period, 18-3 behind.
The Scarlets desperately needed a strong start to the second half, but a horrible mix-up between Aled Thomas, on as a half-time replacement for Liam Williams, and skipper Rob McCusker allowed Ulster to set up a prime attacking position.
And from a five-yard scrum there was an inevitability about the home side's third try, with prop Tom Court crashing over from close-range after a clever switch between Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave.
Pienaar's conversion made it 25-3 and if it hadn't been already, the game was already in the bag for the home side.
To compound the Scarlets' misery, hooker Owens was stretchered off and then moments later Earle, who had been one of the visitors' standout players, hit the deck after coming off second best in a thunderous collision.
Even with half an hour remaining it was all about damage limitation as Ulster created chance after chance.
Replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies did manage to stun the home crowd with a sparkling individual try on the hour mark.
Davies collected a line-out 40 metres out, sliced through two Ulster forwards before stepping past the final defender to the posts.
Williams converted, but Ulster's response was swift, Pienaar adding another penalty after ill-discipline from Joe Snyman.
More good work from Davies almost brought the Scarlets a second try, but after being held up short, they were penalised by Alain Rolland at the ensuing scrum, much to the frustration in the visiting ranks.
But the Scarlets' perseverance was rewarded when Timani ploughed over in the closing stages.