Ulster supporters got a glimpse of the future at Ravenhill on Friday night as debutant winger Mark McCrea’s late try sealed a narrow win for the province over pre-season opponents Leeds Carnegie.
PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY: Friday, August 31
ULSTER 13 LEEDS CARNEGIE 12, Ravenhill (Att: 3,500)
Scorers: Ulster: Try: Mark McCrea; Con: Paul Steinmetz; Pens: Niall O’Connor 2
Leeds Carnegie: Pens: Alberto Di Bernado 3; Drop: Alberto Di Bernado
Ulster Academy player McCrea, more known for his try-scoring prowess with Malone in the AIB League, displayed searing pace to race over in the 72nd-minute for the only try of this Ravenhill encounter.
It was typical pre-season fare but a lack of cutting edge close to the try line let down both sides. McCrea and out-half Niall O’Connor put in solid efforts on their senior debuts for Ulster, who were missing a total of 19 players due to World Cup commitments or injury.
Error-strewn as it was, Guinness Premiership new boys Leeds started the better and a brace of penalties from their Argentinian-born out-half Alberto Di Bernado shot them into the lead.
Leeds had a stranglehold on possession in the first quarter but Ulster almost barged over for the first try. A chip through from Paul Steinmetz saw McCrea on the hoof and the hosts won a lineout close to the Leeds try line, only for their subsequent drive to be held up short.
A penalty award followed which O’Connor sent through the posts in the 20th-minute for a 6-3 score line. Di Bernado replied with his third penalty of the evening, five minutes later, before Ulster had their best spell of the half.
O’Connor got his forwards on the move with a well-judged punt to the corner. Ulster then won successive penalties, the latter one after Leeds flanker Jon Dunbar was whistled up for holding on in the tackle, and O’Connor doubled his side’s tally by converting a 29th-minute place kick.
9-6 in arrears at half-time, Ulster began the second half sluggishly as Leeds pressed for a try through a series of close range scrums, but they soon lost that attacking platform and O’Connor kicked a good penalty to touch after obstruction on Darren Cave.
Ulster’s hopes were dented in the 55th-minute when lock Ryan Caldwell was sent to the sin bin, yet Leeds’ lack of potency behind the scrum and the worsening weather conditions kept try-scoring chances at a premium.
A raft of replacements were introduced during the second half, including Ireland winger Tommy Bowe, and it was Ulster who adapted better to the rain showers.
McCrea was unfortunate as he just failed to gather a chip kick through from replacement Adam Larkin, who was brought on for O’Connor. Against the run of play, Leeds pulled 12-6 clear when Di Bernado landed a long range drop goal before Ulster conjured up the match-winning try, eight minutes from time.
McCrea’s brilliant finish, set up by a well-timed pass from Larkin, lit up quite a forgettable affair. Steinmetz’s conversion put Ulster in front for the first time and that is how it stayed with Di Bernado’s last-gasp penalty sailing wide of the posts.
Ulster face Gloucester at Ravenhill next Saturday in their second pre-season friendly and in advance of that fixture, coach Mark McCall is taking his players away to Portugal for a week-long warm weather training camp.
Commenting on the trip to warmer climes, McCall said: “This is an opportunity to take the players into a new environment. The Browns Resort in Vilamoura is a state-of-the-art complex which Ireland have used before and England and Australia used this summer for their World Cup preparations.
“It is an opportunity for us to get a week’s preparations in ideal conditions and get a bit of a buzz,” added the Ulster boss, who is expected to have Kieron Dawson, Simon Danielli and Justin Harrison back from injury for the Gloucester game.
Ulster: Mark Bartholomeusz; Mark Kettyle, Darren Cave, Paul Steinmetz, Mark McCrea; Niall O’Connor, Kieran Campbell; Justin Fitzpatrick, Nigel Brady, Tom Court, Tim Barker, Ryan Caldwell, Chris Henry, Neil McMillan, Roger Wilson (capt).
Replacements used: Jarlath Carey for Court (37 mins), Tommy Bowe for Kettyle, Matt McCullough for Henry, David Pollock for McMillan (all half-time), Seamus Mallon for Cave, Adam Larkin for O’Connor (both 56), Stuart Philpott for Brady (65), Thomas Anderson for McCullough (67), Paul Marshall for Campbell (68), Bryn Cunningham for Bartholomeusz (71), Filo Paulo for Barker (72).
Leeds: Jon Goodridge; Chris Hughes, Jonny Hepworth, Richard Welding, Tom Biggs; Alberto Di Bernado, Joe Bedford; Michael Cusack, Rob Rawlinson, Adam Hopcroft, Stuart Hooper (capt), Kearnan Myall, Jon Dunbar, Hendre Fourie, Rhys Oakley.
Replacements: Colin Noon, James Parkes, Pablo Bouza, Mark Lock, Darren Edwards, Richard Vasey, Lee Blackett, Leigh Hinton.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)