Rugby Union: Scarlets enjoying purple patch

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The Independent Online
Llanelli 20

Ulster 3

THIS TIME last year, Ulster were about to embark upon the greatest journey in their rather modest rugby history. How times change. Yesterday, at Stradey Park, the Irish province bowed out of the Heineken Cup after a fourth successive defeat in Pool Three.

For Llanelli, however, life in Europe is very much up and running and although Wasps, who host Bourgoin this afternoon, remain favourites to win the pool, the Scarlets are fully justified in thinking they might be there or thereabouts when the automatic place in the quarter-final is sorted out next month.

Llanelli, like Ulster last season, have come some considerable way in a short time. Their investment in the summer in the likes of Dafydd James, Patrick Horgan, Craig Gillies and Simon Easterby, added to a decision not to pay a king's ransom to keep Mike Voyle on board, appears to be paying off. While their form in the Welsh/Scottish League is not what it might be, they seem to have found a method to carve out European victories of significance. And that is a welcome change in fortune. After all, when they were called upon to do likewise last season - in their quarter-final at Perpignan - they were found wanting.

Much of those problems emanated from a china scrum that cracked and disintegrated at the first sight of another eight. In the atrocious conditions at Stradey Park yester-day, the Scarlets gave further confirmation of a marked improvement in that area.

In fact, as pack leader Robin McBryde chose to scrummage Ulster when his side were awarded a fifth-minute penalty, instead of asking fly- half Stephen Jones to kick for touch, you kind of got the feeling that Llanelli had rumbled the Ulster weakness.

The No 8 Hywel Jenkins picked up, drove and then slipped the ball to Chris Wyatt, who did the rest from three yards. The watching Wales coach, Graham Henry, would have enjoyed that, but not the fact that Wyatt was later forced off with a hip injury.

Jones converted, and des-pite missing four penalties before half-time did succeed with a fifth attempt to establish a lead for his side at halfway. For Ulster, there was a single penalty for Simon Mason and nothing else.

Although the wind and rain was relentless throughout the second half, Llanelli did play with a touch more authority, probably because Rupert Moon came off the bench to replace Horgan. Continually prompting and riving his pack forward, Moon played a sig- nificant role in prising open the Ulster defence for his prop John Davies to score a try nine minutes from time.

Jones by then had added a second penalty, and when Davies popped up on the shoulder of Easterby, the line beckoned and the former Wales international did the rest. Jones converted and that was that. Ulster's misery was compounded by an injury to Eric Miller.

Llanelli go to Bourgoin next and then entertain Wasps at Stradey Park. Although their new year attention will be on the difficult trip to France, it is that final encounter with the Allied Dunbar side that could determine their fate.

Llanelli's coach, Gareth Jenkins, was understandably pleased with his side's third straight victory in the competition admitting "I thought we deserved to win," he said.

His Ulster counterpart, Harry Williams, said: "I don't believe we are a one-year wonder side and I do think we will be back."

Llanelli: M Cardey; W Proctor, N Boobyer, S Finau, D James; S Jones, P Horgan (R Moon, 49); P Booth (S Emms, 41), R McBryde, J Davies (M Madden, 73), V Cooper, C Gillies, C Wyatt (I Boobyer, 52), S Easterby, H Jenkins

Ulster: S Mason; S Coulter, J Bell, J Cunningham, S Bromley; N Malone, S Bell; J Fitzpatrick, R Weir (S Best, 71), J Veitayaki, G Longwell, P Johns (capt), D O'Cuinneagain, E Miller (S McKinty, 49), D Topping

Referee: C White (England).

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