Ulster stormed to the top of the United Rugby Championship with seven attempts to destroy Cardiff at Ravenhill.
Three tries in the first half and a further four after the turn gave the hosts a 48-12 win in a game in which those hoping to catch the attention of Ireland manager Andy Farrell went a long way towards the victory performed.
After being idle last weekend, the Northern Province were four points behind their close neighbors Leinster, but they had the bonus point needed to overtake them again, albeit temporarily, with half an hour to go.
Ulster lost the loose Andy Warwick before kick-off, prompting Jack McGrath and Callum Reid, who came on the bench, to climb to the number one shirt, but otherwise it was a side bolstered considerably by returnees.
Skipper Iain Henderson was back from his Covid bout and donned the white jersey for only the third time this season as he looked to glean some valuable minutes ahead of next weekend’s Six Nations trip to Twickenham. Jordi Murphy and John Cooney were also back from injury, while James Hume, Nick Timoney and Robert Baloucoune were released from Ireland duty to perform.
And it was the latter who scored the first goal with just eight minutes left.
The winger, who is yet to add to his two caps during the Six Nations, made the most of a cross that luckily bounced back into his arms as he hit the accelerator and sped away from the desperate tackles in Cardiff.
Doak converted and the young scrum-half added a penalty shortly after when Willis Halaholo was pinged off the deck for a tackle, an incident that sent the Welsh center into the sin trap.
And disaster would strike the 14 outnumbered on their first attack. Despite the numerical disadvantage, the visitors appeared to have an overlap when Jarrod Evans got the ball in the outside half.
Hume timed his dart expertly from the defensive line, however, and once he safely put the ball into his own “22” with one hand, there was no stopping him from galloping home. After just 15 minutes, Ulster was leading 17-0.
Despite the lead, however, not everything clicked with an unkempt set piece, certainly a problem area in the first half. The game lacked rhythm in the second quarter but Cardiff failed to assert themselves during Ulster’s wayward period.
After playing the fewest games in the United Rugby Championship and not taking the field at all in February, the Welsh region looked decidedly rusty, with a crooked lineup in the corner denying them an opportunity to score their first points of the year to achieve evening.
And they missed an even cruder chance before the turn, knocking as they tried to tap and walk after Ulster was caught offside five yards from their own line.
Aled Summerhill, stepping onto the touchline when it seemed Doak missed his touch, summed up Cardiff’s opening half.
They paid the ultimate price for those transgressions when Ulster went up the other end and Stuart McCloskey fell after a Nick Timoney break with the clock in the red. What looked like it could have been 17-7 was suddenly 22-0 and Ulster’s job felt almost done.
The second half started in much the same style as the first, as Cardiff missed another opportunity when Jordi Murphy rose to claim their fallen line-up in the corner.
However, they were delayed in receiving their opening score of the competition after 45 minutes.
It was Kirby Myhill who took the corner after Evans and Halaholo proved the key combination in the build-up.
Rather than provoke the start of an unlikely comeback, Ulster would bag the bonus point with half an hour to go. After creating the third, Timoney would score the fourth himself, breaking three tackles to climb over the line after a sharp offload from Hume.
Although their return to the top of the URC was assured, Ulster called for their reinforcements with Springbok World Cup winner Duane Vermeulen and the fit Cooney called up from the bench. And Cooney was planning a conversion just moments later.
Baloucoune scored his sixth goal in his last five games thanks to another brilliant show of pace not unlike his performance against Connacht here last month. The winger’s night was over in the next break with Aaron Sexton taking his place.
And it was the substitute who scored the sixth of the night with his first try as a senior. The flying winger, a schoolboy sprinter before turning his attention to rugby, didn’t have much to do before falling into an overlap after Hume and Stewart Moore.
Ten minutes before the end there would be another premiere. When Cardiff didn’t roll away on the breakdown, Ulster went for the corner and the subsequent Maul score was ended by 20-year-old hooker Tom Stewart for his own first try. Cardiff scored the final points of the game when substitute backer James Ratti fell from close range, but it was the sight of the unfortunate Owen Lane stumbling with the line with two minutes left that summed up their frustrating evening.
Ulster: Stewart Moore; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ben Moxham, Billy Burns, Nathan Doak, Jack McGrath, John Andrew, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (CAPT), Jordi Murphy, Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney.
replacement: Tom Stewart (for Andrew, 56), Callum Reid (for McGrath, 40), Gareth Milasinovich (for Moore, 58), Sam Carter (for O’Connor, 58), Duane Vermeulen (for Murphy, 50), John Cooney (for Doak, 50), Ian Madigan (for McCloskey, 62), Aaron Sexton (for Baloucoune, 56)
Cardiff Rugby: Hallam Amos; Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Aled Summerhill; Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Brad Thyer, Kirby Myhill, Dmitri Arhip, Josh Turnbull (Captain), Matthew Screech, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, James Botham
replacement: Keiron Assiratti (for Myhill, 57), Rhys Carré (for Thyer, 50), Will Davies-King (for Arhip, 42), Teddy Williams (for Screech, 57), James Ratti (for Botham, 57), Jamie Hill (for L Williams), Ben Thomas (for Halaholo, 50), Matthew Morgan (for Amos, 50).
Referee: Hollie Davidson (SRU)
Player of the Game: S Moore (ULS)
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/ulster-rugby/robert-baloucoune-hits-top-form-again-as-ulster-thrash-cardiff-41413695.html Robert Baloucoune runs in top form again as Ulster beat Cardiff