George North and Jonathan Davies will be free to press their claims for a starting spot for the British & Irish Lions against the Barbarians on June 1 after fellow tourist Tommy Bowe helped Ulster beat the Scarlets in the first RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final.
Bowe dived over for the first of three Ulster tries as the top seeds booked a finals place against either Leinster or Glasgow Warriors on May 25 with a 28-17 success.
The 2009 Test Lion, who started on the wing in the first and second internationals against the Springboks before switching to the centre for the victorious third rubber, is now unlikely to feature in the tour opener but the focus of the beaten Scarlets pair will immediately turn to the Lions’ historic Hong Kong fixture.
Bowe had plenty to celebrate at Ravenhill as his side kept alive their hopes of a first trophy in seven seasons and he won his individual battle with North.
The Ireland international showed just why his inclusion in Gatland’s 37-man party was so widely expected despite the fact that he has only just returned from four months out with a knee injury when he stepped inside his opposite number from close-range after 24 minutes.
North could do little to stop his man given the accuracy of Ruan Pienaar’s flat pass and the lack of support out wide but Bowe needed no second invitation to display his expert finishing skills.
Robbie Diack also crossed the Scarlets line in the first half to give the hosts a commanding 18-3 lead at the break and the Welsh side never looked like closing the substantial gap.
Losing former Lions front runner Rhys Priestland to a sore Achilles just before kick off, centre Scott Williams after only 20 minutes and then hooker Ken Owens and lock George Earle within a five-minute spell early in the second half hardly helped the Scarlets’ cause but they could have few complaints about the result, even though they finished the stronger to bring some respectability to the scoreline.
Ulster were 25-3 up when Tom Court powered over from two metres out after Darren Cave’s decisive break just three minutes into the second period before the Scarlets hit back with a fine individual effort from replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies on the hour and a more straight forward score from Sione Timani a minute-and-a-half before the end.
The Belfast-based side will now begin to prepare for the final at their chosen venue of the RDS – Leinster’s home ground – while Gatland’s attentions will move to a domestic double header tomorrow afternoon and evening when no fewer than 13 of his squad will be in action in England and Ireland.
A total of six Lions will be on display for Leicester Tigers’ in their home semi-final with Aviva Premiership Champions Harlequins, while seven more will be in action in Dublin when Leinster host Glasgow for the right to meet Ulster.
The Lions head coach will be hoping that Dan Cole, Tom Croft, Geoff Parling, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs, Tom Youngs, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Sexton, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland come through unscathed as the 125th anniversary tour draws ever closer.
Sunday then sees Saracens trio Owen Farrell, Matt Stevens and Mako Vunipola and Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley in action in the second English semi-final.