Ulster might have killed the Sharks’ home United Rugby Championship (URC) hopes after beating the men in black 24-21 in Belfast on Friday night.
The manner in which the Sharks succumbed will concern their management; they looked like a hastily assembled Barbarian outfit, without the attacking pizzazz and all of the disorientated defending.
Nothing clicked for the Sharks, and it looked for a long time that they could conceivably leave Ireland without scoring a point on the scoreboard, so comprehensive the mauling. But three late tries saved their blushes, adding some respectability to the result.
AS IT HAPPENED | Ulster vs Sharks
On the face of it, it looked like a close game but Ulster seldom ceded control and looked like a Test team, while the Sharks looked like individuals who’ve played some Tests.
Their losing bonus point took them to 57 points on the URC log, one ahead of Munster, who face what’s likely to be a weakened Leinster on Saturday night, while Ulster’s four points took them to 59, and second place.
The Sharks loss also means the Bulls and Stormers could overtake them in the top four race.
Ulster fullback Mike Lowry scored the first try in the 27th minute after great work by wing Ethan McIlroy, who smartly offloaded near the line to dupe the on-rushing Sharks cover defence.
Scrumhalf John Cooney’s conversion made it 10-0 to the home side after he broke the deadlock with a penalty earlier in the game.
A brutal, Test-feel game claimed James Hume to an early head injury assessment, followed by try-scorer Lowry, who was on the receiving end of an Aphelele Fassi midfield break as he tried to tackle the fullback but got a bloodied temple as payback.
There was no malice on Fassi’s part and Lowry’s tackle technique was flawless. It was an occupational hazard.
The Sharks lacked patience on the ball and couldn’t apply the necessary pressure on Ulster as unforced errors let the hosts off the hook repeatedly.
When they did put phases together after a brilliant Marius Louw first-phase break, Ulster defended manfully and got out of jail with a turnover. They would use this card repeatedly.
The Sharks going into the break scoreless was indicative of their bluntness.
It didn’t take more than four minutes for Ulster to add a second try, despite an early warning, when inside centre Stuart McCloskey shrugged off Louw and Fassi to score under the sticks.
The Sharks, who hadn’t laid a glove on Ulster, were 17 down and desperate with more than half an hour remaining.
Head coach Sean Everitt’s side seemed to have lost the creativity that took them into the top four. And when the artistry couldn’t come together, they took out the sledgehammer but Ulster stood firm.
An hour passed and the Sharks still couldn’t get a point and looked spent and deflated.
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Everitt made a raft of substitutions, including sapping No 9 Jaden Hendrikse, who was ineffective, for Grant Williams on the hour - the best move of the night.
Eventually, 62 minutes in, Ntuthuko Mchunu tapped and went to the try line from 5m out - a predictable route one ploy if there ever was one but it worked. The Sharks were on the board.
But the joy didn’t last long. Two minutes later, Hume scored at the other end after profiting from a Cooney inside pass, who also benefitted from Rob Baloucoune’s break down the right.
The Sharks scored their second try through Louw but they left it desperately late.
Williams, who sparkled since his introduction, scored a breakaway try with less than a minute left on the clock, which proved inconsequential bar giving the Sharks a losing bonus point.
Ulster - (10) 24
Tries: Mike Lowry, Stuart McCloskey, James Hume
Conversions: John Cooney (3)
Penalties: John Cooney
Sharks - (0) 21
Tries: Ntuthuko Mchunu, Marius Louw, Grant Williams
Conversions: Curwin Bosch, Boeta Chamberlain (2)