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Paddy Jackson showed Joe Schmidt just what he is missing with a virtuoso first-half display as Ulster claimed a bonus-point win over the Scarlets to strengthen their grip on a RaboDirect PRO12 play-off spot.
Jackson was sent back for club duty this weekend by the Ireland head coach as Leinster’s Ian Madigan took his place in the matchday squad but the youngster certainly was not licking his wounds with two tries in the first half at Ravenhill.
In addition Jackson also set up a fine score for Tommy Bowe as Ulster cut their Welsh opponents to shreds, crossing the whitewash three times before the interval.
Gareth Davies’ breakaway effort kept the Welsh region interested but the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Stephen Ferris who came off the bench in the second half for his first appearance since November 2012.
And a rip-roaring cameo from the British & Irish Lion, who has been out with an ankle injury for 16 months, helped Ulster to seal the bonus point with the last play of the game as Tom Court burrowed over.
In a re-arranged fixture after the original Valentine’s night clash was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, Ulster came firing out of the blocks.
They showed their intent early on with Jared Payne to the fore in a fine early break that proved Mark Anscombe’s troops were not afraid to run the ball from deep.
But despite the early pressure it took a huge slice of good luck for the Irish region, who have only lost once at home this season, to take the lead.
Jackson’s grubber kick in the 16th minute down the right touchline was hopeful more than harmful and the Scarlets appeared in little danger.
But opposite man Aled Thomas made a real meal of collecting the ball and it popped up perfectly into the grateful arms of the Ulster No.10, who had the simplest of jobs to dot down.
Ruan Pienaar added the extras for a 7-0 scoreline that was doubled just moments later, Bowe this time the beneficiary as he appeared on Jackson’s shoulder, the stand-off breaking the line before feeding his winger for a 14-0 lead, Pienaar again on target with the conversion.
The Scarlets were in danger of being blown away but after weathering the storm Olly Barkley got them a foothold with a penalty after a high tackle from Roger Wilson.
But with barely a half hour played Ulster had their third and it was that man Jackson again, Bowe the provider this time with a clever break before putting his Ireland teammate under the posts.
The 21-3 scoreline did not flatter the hosts but they were made to pay for complacency almost immediately afterwards thanks to some quick thinking from Scarlets scrum-half Gareth Davies.
Quick turnover ball saw the No.9 take possession and he spotted space in behind, chipped through and beat opposite man Pienaar in a foot race for the try.
Barkley added the extras but missed with a penalty on the stroke of half-time meaning they had to settle for a 21-10 deficit at the break.
Right after the interval it was Ulster who continued to carry the more serious threat, but Pienaar missed a long distance penalty attempt in the 52nd minute and another one a couple of minutes later and the game was not yet sealed for the Irish region.
Just after the hour mark Ferris made his return and was greeted by one of the biggest Ravenhill roars of the season.
But while he was still waiting on the sideline to throw himself into action Scarlets centre Barkley added his second penalty to make it only an eight-point lead.
Ferris signalled his return with a crunching tackle and the back-rower did not appear to have missed a beat in his 16-month absence but still Ulster could not kill the game off and claim a bonus point.
Time and again the hosts applied pressure in the Scarlets 22 but a combination of last-ditch tackling and Ulster errors appeared to have ruined their chances.
But then in the last play a succession of penalties moved Ulster to set up camp on the try-line before Court finally burrowed over.
The result ends Scarlets’ three-game unbeaten run in the league and means Ulster stay third but only three points behind Munster, with Leinster a further point ahead at the top.