Gwent down Ulster to take over at top

Newport-Gwent Dragons 27 Ulster 19
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The Independent Online

The future of the Celtic League was thrown into the air both on and off the field amid a sensational game in Newport and desperate talks in Scotland.

While Ulster and the Newport-Gwent Dragons kept 6,000 or so spectators on the edge of their seatsright up to the final whistle, Irish and Scottish officials were looking to set a cap on such occasions.

The newly extended Celtic League, played on a home and away basis for the first time in its short three-year history, has been hailed as a success, with at least four clubs in the hunt for the title.

Yet the Scotland Rugby Union, backed by their Irish counterparts, want to avoid playing through the Six Nations and autumn international periods by reverting to the original home or away structure.

The call, voiced by the new SRU chief executive Phil Anderton, is based as much on the need to cut costs to the centrally funded provinces as protecting the interests of the national team, though it is probably no coincidence that all three Scottish sides are in the basement of the table.

The Celtic Cup, of which Ulster became the inaugural winners before Christmas, is also under threat and the uncertainty is sure to make finding a sponsor that much harder.

The tournament director, Keith Grainger, said: "I think the format now is ideal, but we have to respect the issues surrounding the impact international rugby has on the Irish and Scottish regions."

Ulster, however, did not have the luxury of that excuse at Newport with Ireland trio David Humphreys, Simon Best and Gary Longwell all in the starting line-up.

Humphreys, who was at his inspirational best, steered the visitors into a 16-9 half-time lead after working the space for No 8 Roger Wilson to cross five minutes before the break.

But the Dragons have pride in their unbeaten home record in the league and breathed fire in the second half.

Percy Montgomery's half-break was rounded off by the replacement outside-half Lee Jarvis, though Gwent only took the lead five minutes from time with a penalty from the former Springbok.

Humphreys had the chance to win the game but fluffed a relatively straightforward penalty before Michael Owen's quick thinking - with Ulster preoccupied with arguing the awarding of a penalty with referee Iain Ramage - sent Hal Luscombe over for the insurance try to usurp the visitors at the top of the table.

The Dragons coach Mike Ruddock said: "We've always known in Wales that we've had the talent, but the Celtic League has given us the chance to start proving that."

Newport-Gwent Dragons: Tries Jarvis, Luscombe. Conversion Montgomery. Penalties Montgomery 5. Ulster: Try Wilson. Conversion Humphreys. Penalties Humphreys 4.

Newport-Gwent Dragons: S Tuipulotu; N Brew, P Montgomery, A Marinos (capt), H Luscombe; C Warlow (L Jarvis, 54), G Baber; A Black (R Snow, 54), S Jones, R Thomas, M Owen, P Sidoli, R Beattie (J Ringer, 54), S Van Rensburg, J Forster.

Ulster: B Cunningham; J Topping, S Stewart, P Steinmetz, S Young; D Humphreys, K Campbell (N Doak, 51); R Kempson, P Shields, S Best, G Longwell (M Mustchin, 68), M McCullough, N Best (R Moore, 15-17, 60), R Wilson (W Brosnihan, 68), N McMillan (capt).

Referee: I Ramage (Scotland).