Spirited Dragons defeated in Belfast
Dragons produced a spirited second half display but were defeated 40-17 by a powerful and direct Ulster outfit in the Guinness PRO14 at the Kingspan Stadium.
Wing Ashton Hewitt and replacement Jamie Roberts grabbed second half scores as Dean Ryan’s men rallied in Belfast.
But there was no stopping an Ulster side keen to go one better than their PRO14 exploits last time out and claim the coveted trophy for the first time in 15 years.
Ulster’s win – that extended the province’s unbeaten record at the Kingspan back to October 2018 – was built on a clinical first half of fives tries built on direct running and ball carrying.
Dragons will take positives from the second half with Hewitt diving over for his fifth try in his last six games before Roberts having the final word after a length of the field attack.
However, boss Ryan will expect a reaction when the next Irish side - Munster – visit Rodney Parade on Sunday.
A swirling wind whipped around the stadium at kick-off causing plenty of issues when the ball was sent high.
However, when it was kept in hand it was the Ulster power game that came to the fore in the opening half hour.
Number Eight Marcell Coetzee opened the scoring when he bulldozed his way over from close range after Ian Madigan split the defence with a neat offload in the tackle.
Dragons looked to respond with a searing break from Adam Warren seeing him burst through and offload to Rhodri Williams on his shoulder before the ball was lost.
Playmaker Sam Davies reduced the lead with a sweetly struck penalty after brilliant work by the returning Ollie Griffiths secured the shot at the posts.
Ulster’s powerful carrying game, though, was bringing rewards with another close-range burst seeing prop Eric O’Sullivan crash through.
Dragons were having to repel wave after wave of home attack before relentless pressure told once more with Sean Reidy the latest heavyweight forward to muscle his way over.
Wing Louis Ludik slid over out wide just after the half hour mark for the bonus and then added another on the stroke of half-time after a scything break from Rob Lyttle.
Dragons looked for a foothold at the start of the second half with Jack Dixon and Griffiths combining off a lineout after a clever dart down the short-side from Williams.
Ellis Ship, Ben Fry and Jamie Roberts were also introduced by Ryan to try and spark a response.
Home wing Matt Faddes was yellow carded for a loose elbow on Warren and Dragons looked to make the numerical advantage count with a period of sustained pressure.
Wing Hewitt showed all his predatory finishing skills once again as he took a pass from Roberts and brushed off the final man to dot down with another sharp finish.
Lock Alan O’Connor scored a sixth home score as he stretched over.
But it was Dragons who had the final word as they went the length of the field, with Jonah Holmes, Hewitt and Fry all impressive, to score through Roberts.
05m Coetzee t Cooney c 7-0
10m Davies p 7-3
15m O’Sullivan t Cooney c 14-3
27m Reidy t Cooney c 21-3
32m Ludik t Cooney c 28-3
39m Ludik t Cooney c 35-3
61m Hewitt t Davies c 35-10
66m O’Connor t 40-10
80m Roberts t Davies c 40-17
Ulster: Rob Lyttle (Lowry 73), Matt Faddes, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Louis Ludik, Ian Madigan (Johnston 45), John Cooney (Shanahan 59); Eric O’Sullivan (McCall 53), John Andrew (McBurney 51), Marty Moore (Kane 53), Alan O’Connor, Sam Carter (Tredwell 49), Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee (Timoney 54)
Replacements: Adam McBurney, Kyle McCall, Ross Kane, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney, David Shanahan, Bill Johnston, Michael Lowry
Dragons: Jonah Holmes, Jared Rosser, Adam Warren, Jack Dixon (Roberts 51), Ashton Hewitt, Sam Davies, Rhodri Williams (Knoyle 59); Greg Bateman (Harris 59), Richard Hibbard (Shipp 47), Lloyd Fairbrother (Coleman 70), Joe Davies (Maksymiw 66), Matthew Screech, Harrison Keddie, Taine Basham (Fry 47), Ollie Griffiths
Replacements: Ellis Shipp, Brok Harris, Chris Coleman, Joe Maksymiw, Ben Fry, Tavis Knoyle, Arwel Robson, Jamie Roberts
Referee: Gianluca Gnecchi (FIR, 3rd competition game)