While the Ulster lineup was strong and focused from 1 to 15, standout performances from RaboDirect Players' Player of the Year Nick Williams, the ever-industrious Darren Cave, and man-of-the-match Rory Best, a rock at the heart of the Ulster defence, made the difference between the teams.
Four changes from the team which defeated Cardiff Blues last week - one enforced and three tactical - saw Declan Fitzpatrick take over from the injured John Afoa at prop, while Court, Dan Tuohy and Paddy Jackson were preferred to Callum Black, Iain Henderson and Paul Marshall, who all dropped to the bench. The inclusion of Jackson at out-half freed up Ruan Pienaar to play at his favoured position of scrum-half.
Scarlets made an enterprising start with a strong left-wing raid by Andy Fenby, and edged into the lead as early as the fourth minute, courtesy of a penalty from Owen Williams, a last-minute replacement for Rhys Priestland. Pienaar equalised in the very next minute, but a poor fumble of the restart ball from Andrew Trimble put his team under a high-pressure scrum in their own '22'. Impeccable defending soon brought a knock-on from the visitors, however, and Ulster settled into their game on the 10-minute mark.
Nevertheless, Scarlets were proving much more of a match than in the season's two previous encounters between the sides - both victories for Ulster, one of them by 30 points at Ravenhill in January - and were unlucky to see Williams' 18th-minute penalty ricochet off the upright. Ulster responded with bite, a 50-metre dash from Jared Payne ripping through the heart of the Scarlets, before tempers flared deep in Welsh territory, and both Trimble and visiting full-back Liam Williams were sent to the sinbin for some amateur pugilism.
With the commitment of both sides far from being in doubt, Ulster pushed and probed metres from the try-line, the Scarlets resisting manfully in the first instance. Several phases of patient recycling ensued, before the spark ignited - Bowe picked up 15 metres from home and jinked his way around a handful of tackles to stretch over for the score. Pienaar converted to set the scoreboard at Ulster 10 Scarlets 3 on 25 minutes.
The Springbok's boot narrowly failed to add three more on the half-hour as his penalty attempt from the right wing lacked the requisite curve, but a well-marshalled push from a 10-metre lineout moments later resulted in an even more valuable bounty, as Diack bundled his way over among a tide of Ulster bodies for try number two. Pienaar's conversion kick rebounded off the woodwork to safety, but he was able to atone with a close-range penalty just before the interval, sending his side to the changing rooms with a 17-point cushion.
Half-Time Score Ulster 18 Scarlets 3
Ulster's start to the second half was just as dynamic, a great line break from Cave paving the way for Court to pick up and drive over from three metres. Pienaar added his second conversion of the evening, and after a protracted pause for what appeared a serious injury to Scarlets hooker Ken Owens, a now indefatigable Ulster almost grabbed try number four on 50 minutes, undone by a knock-on at the very last.
Proving increasingly brittle, Scarlets lost lock George Earle to an apparent concussion in the very next action, but were buoyed by a fine individual try from Gareth Davies on the hour mark, converted by Williams. A Pienaar penalty kept the scoreboard ticking over moments later at Ulster 28 Scarlets 10, before the game lost much of its rhythm with multiple replacements in the last 15 minutes.
Scarlets enjoyed much of the territory and possession in the closing stages, entrenched close to the line for a good five minutes before replacement Sione Timani sneaked over from a quickly-tapped penalty. It was, of course, too little too late for the visitors, as Williams' conversion proved the last significant action of the match.
In a fortnight's time, then, Ulster will be bound for the RDS, where either Leinster or Glasgow Warriors will stand in the way of their first domestic league title since 2006.
Full-Time Score Ulster 28 Scarlets 17
(15 - 9) J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar
(1 - 8) T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (c), D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams
(16 - 23) R Herring, C Black, R Lutton, I Henderson, M McComish, P Marshall, M Allen, P Nelson
(15 - 9) L Williams; G North, J Davies, S Williams, A Fenby; O Williams, A Davies
(1 - 8) P John, K Owens, S Lee, G Earle, J Synman, A Shingler, J Turnbull, R McCusker (c)
Replacements (16 - 23) E Phillips, R Jones, J Adriaanse, J Ball, S Timani, G Davies, A Thomas, G Owen
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|
|Scarlets Score Card|