GLASGOW Warriors were beaten for the first time this season in a bruising encounter at Ulster, but a serious looking injury to centre Mark Bennett was the major negative from this defeat at Kingspan Stadium.
Bennett was stretchered off 20 minutes from time after receiving lengthy treatment when he was caught at the bottom of a ruck, while Glasgow’s Sean Lamont also limped off earlier in the half.
Ulster showed their power ahead of next weekend’s European Champions Cup opener against Leicester as two late tries from Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe finally finished off the visitors.
Ian Humphreys had set them on their way with five first-half penalties, but the pacey duo finished off the job in the 67th and 70th minutes to end Glasgow’s 100 per cent record in the Pro12.
Glasgow, who had already scored 21 tries on their way to five wins from five, took the lead in the sixth minute when Finn Russell slotted a penalty from the left – the initial chance arrived after the ball was judged to have been brought back into the Ulster 22 prior to Louis Ludik’s clearance.
But the home side soon drew level when Rob Harley was penalised for entering the side of a Ulster maul that had been formed near the halfway line. And with Paddy Jackson out due to concussion protocols, Ian Humphreys proved a more than adequate replacement and he slotted his first of five first half penalties.
With defences ruling the roosts the inevitable penalties flowed, and both kickers were given plenty of chances.
Humphreys took the next one presented to him in the 16th minute, this time Ulster’s dominant scrum forced Gordon Reid to lose his footing and the Ulster fly-half made it 6-3 from the ten metre line.
The home fans were up in arms two minutes later though following a mid-air collision between Lamont – a late replacement for Peter Murchie – and Ludik. With a penalty advantage to fall back on Russell chipped over the rushing Ulster defence and the two players collided in an ugly heap. After viewing the incident on the big screen referee Nigel Owens was happy that there was no malice on either side, and Russell levelled matters from the initial penalty.
It only took Ulster four minutes to regain that lead though and once again it was a maul built on the halfway line that forced the error as Humphreys made it 9-6 after Tim Swinson infringed.
The hits were frequent and bone chilling from both sides, but Ulster certainly held the upper hand in the set-piece war. And in the 31st minute Humphreys found the target again after the home scrum devoured their Glasgow opponents, driving them backwards. Six minutes from the break Glasgow were temporarily reduced to 14 men when Leone Nakarawa was caught yards offside when he intercepted an Ulster pass, and although Humphreys missed the target, he hit it two minutes later after Glasgow hands in the ruck saw them trail 15-6 at the break.
In both halves Glasgow impressed in clearing their lines, both Henry Pyrgos and Sean Lamont especially stood out with efficient kicks. And their fly-half soon got in on the act, this time off the tee, as Ulster No.8 Nick Williams was penalised for a wild tackle on Lamont, and Russell reduced Ulster’s lead to 15-9.
Lamont limped off soon after to be replaced by DTH van der Merwe, and Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend would have been delighted to call on Jonny Gray following his injury lay off in the 50th minute.
Only some uncharacteristic poor handling from Bowe denied Ulster an opening try when Humphreys’ crossfield kick picked out the British and Irish Lion in the 50th minute, and ten minutes later just the rotation of a ball denied Jared Payne a try as the pall trickled out of the goal area a millisecond before he got downward pressure on it. Play was delayed for a lengthy period as Glasgow centre Bennett received treatment on the field and was later carried from the field, but in the closing stages Ulster made sure of the win with two tries in three minutes.
First Craig Gilroy cut a super line from out to in off the back of a ruck and raced around Niko Matawalu to score in corner, which Humphreys converted.
Then, in the 70th minute, Bowe made the most of some generous handling errors from Glasgow as Ulster attacked from deep to score under the posts, once more Humphreys had no trouble converting. In looked easy for Ulster in the end, but both sides knew they had taken part in a bruising encounter.
Scorers: Ulster: Tries: C Gilroy, T Bowe. Cons: I Humphreys 2. Pens: I Humphreys 5. Glasgow: Pens: F Russell 3.
Ulster: L Ludik (S Olding 71); A Trimble (C Gilroy 34), J Payne, S McCloskey, T Bowe; I Humphreys, P Marshall; A Warwick (C Black 59), R Best (R Herring 74), W Herbst (B Ross 21-24 blood & 74); A O’Connor, F van der Merwe (L Stevenson 71); R Diack, C Henry, N Williams (R Wilson 53).
Glasgow: S Maitland; T Seymour, M Bennett (N Matawalu 61), P Horne (J Downey 56), S Lamont (DTH van der Merwe 48); F Russell, H Pyrgos; G Reid (J Yanuyanutawa 66), F Brown ( D Hall 53), E Murray (for Z Fagerson 76); T Swinson (for J Gray 50), L Nakarawa; R Harley, C Fusaro, J Strauss.
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU).