Rabz Maxwane tackles Mike Lowry. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/Gallo Images)
Ulster’s superior patience and pedigree was more than enough for the Irish side to see off the Lions as they clinched a 26-10 victory in Belfast on Friday night.
It proved a strange evening for the boisterous crowd at the Kingspan Stadium, a match that featured a fair amount of initiative from both sides, only to be undermined by a rash of errors.
The hosts in particular will probably feel that they could’ve scored a few more points from the surfeit of possession and territory that they enjoyed as their quick passing and crafty lines stretched the Lions’ defence on various occasions.
But the passing wasn’t always accurate and some butterfingered handling kept the Lions longer in the game – at least on the scoreboard – than they should’ve been.
Nonetheless, Ulster should be happy that the core principles of their style of play remained steadfastly intact.
They were familiarly solid in the scrums, generally ensured that they created their opportunities in the right areas of the field and increased the tempo when they needed to.
Good teams also display opportunistic savvy and Ulster did so as early as the 3rd minute, when they delivered a real sucker-punch, going short from an attacking line-out and fooling the Lions to such an extent that the visitors still went for the jump, allowing their defensive line to part like the Red Sea.
But their other three visits behind the whitewash were structured and composed, the highlight being centre James Hume’s try, where 12 phases was enough to finally see the Lions line run out of defenders.
Meanwhile, it’s difficult to judge where Ivan van Rooyen’s troops are in their early evolution under three new specialist coaches.
There’s evidence of them trying to be more pragmatic in terms of their attacking game, using smart kicks for field position and then trying to strike instead of just running willy nilly.
One of them, by fullback Divan Rossouw, was tight enough to lead to the foot in touch that, in turn, led to the Lions’ only try of the night.
Hooker Jaco Visagie shrewdly overthrew the resultant line-out, allowing No 8 Ruhan Straeuli to make useful metres before quick ball from three phases saw winger Stean Pienaar crash over.
Yet there’s also a sense that the Lions continue to put themselves under pressure despite, counterintuitively, enjoying their fair share of ball during certain stages of a match.
They lack overall punching power on attack and, being required to make no less than 173 tackles, is not a recipe for success if you can’t strike on the counter.
Ironically, the Lions managed to curb Ulster’s fast-finishing nature by dominating the final ten minutes.
One viable opportunity went a begging due to a carrier holding on in a promising position, while the night on attack was summed up by replacement scrumhalf knocking on a tap from a free-kick and the industrious Rabz Maxwane spilling a dangerous charge into the line.
Ulster – (12) 26
Tries: Nick Timoney (2), James Hume, Matty Rea,
Conversions: Nathan Doak (3)
Lions – (10) 10
Try: Stean Pienaar
Conversion: EW Viljoen