Clinical Ulster dent Connacht’s Champions Cup hopes in Galway

Connacht 20Ulster 27

Murray Kinsella reports from the Sportsground

THERE WAS A brief standoff immediately before kick-off in this inter-provincial Guinness Pro12 clash, with both sides arguing their right to play away from the College Road end, therefore against a firm wind.

Robbie Henshaw attempts to break down the Ulster defence. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Rory Best was adamant Ulster had been awarded that honour in the pre-match coin toss, but after some confusion referee Nigel Owens ordered them to play with the wind at their backs.

As it transpired, the 17-0 lead the northern province built up in that first half proved to be enough to guide them victory, one Neil Doak’s side ensured came with a bonus point after the break.

Ulster were forced into an uncomfortable final 10 minutes by Connacht’s spirited fightback, but held firm for five points that move them back up to second in the league table.

Connacht did at least manage to grab a losing bonus point thanks to a late Tiernan O’Halloran try. It may prove crucial.

Pat Lam’s men must now hope that the Scarlets lose in Zebre and Edinburgh are defeated by Munster this evening if they are to retain sixth spot as they target automatic Champions Cup qualification.

Connacht enjoyed much first-half possession, but their errors were clinically punished by an Ulster team that intermittently looked like bring in play-off mode with three regular season fixtures left. Doak might be concerned with some of the defensive lapses.

There were five tries in total, Ireland wing Tommy Bowe bagging a brace, as Ulster demonstrated utter ruthlessness with their visits into Connacht’s defensive territory.

The first arrived after just four minutes as Louis Ludik handed off Miah Nikora to cross wide on the right following an Ulster attack that had stemmed from one of those Connacht mistakes.

The returning Bundee Aki spilled a Tiernan O’Halloran pass inside the home team’s half to provide Ulster with a scrum platform. Jared Payne broke on a switch line off Paddy Jackson, before offloading to the lively Craig Gilroy for further gains.

Bowe opened the try-scoring for Ulster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Chris Henry’s smart offload to Iain Henderson kept the momentum going, before Ludik finished smartly.

With Pienaar missing the conversion, Connacht came to life to dominate possession for the remainder of the half, but the blustery wind meant a low-risk strategy that revolved around scrum-half Kieran Marmion.

Connacht thought they’d scored in the 22nd minute when Aki cleverly dived in to ambush Pienaar just behind the Ulster tryline as the scrum-half attempted to scoop the ball up for a relieving kick.

Aki dived in from the right of the ruck to ground the ball, but TMO Jude Quinns told Owens that Pienaar had applied downward pressure before Aki’s intervention. A decision that might cause some anger in Connacht quarters.

Served their warning, Ulster fought back into the Connacht half and then pounced after another error from Lam’s men. Aki lost possession in the tackle of Best on Connacht’s 22-metre line, allowing Jackson to spin the ball wide right to the surging Bowe.

The Ireland international powered through Healy’s despairing tackle to dot down, but Pienaar missed the conversion again.

That sucker punch was doubled just minutes later as Gilroy burned around the outside of the exposed Quinn Roux and through the attempted covering tackle of Danie Poolman to score Ulster’s third.

Afforded an easier position, Pienaar struck what proved to be his only successful conversion of the day for that 17-0 lead at the break.

Gilroy crossed shortly before the break.

Connacht burst out of the blocks in the second period, Matt Healy threatening immediately with a big fend on Roger Wilson, before Ulster produced some wonderful maul defence to hold their lines.

Lam’s men came again though, Rodney Ah You popping off the deck to the impressive Aly Muldowney to send them scampering up to Ulster’s 22. Form there, Healy again produced a massive fend, this time on Henry, then showed his sprinter’s pace to finish.

Nikora converted the try and added a penalty to bring Connacht right back into the game at 17-10, but again Ulster were able to produce a clinical edge.

Connacht captain John Muldoon did supremely well to halt one Ulster mauling effort, then the westerners stole the next lineout. However, Ah You inadvertently lobbed the ball into Best’s hands from that second incident and Ulster went on the attack.

Slick handling from Jackson and Darren Cave sent Bowe over in the right corner a handful of phases later.

Pienaar was wide with the extras, before Ulster’s maul finally got motoring to provide the opportunity for Best to fall over the line and score. That came after replacement Jack Carty’s penalty, meaning an Ulster lead of 27-13 with just 15 minutes remaining.

Game over surely?

Connacht showed their never-ending spirit though and manufactured a superb try on the 72-minute mark, finished by O’Halloran in the left corner. Carty showed mental edge to knock over the extras and we had a grandstand finish.

Fullback O’Halloran dives in for the try that allowed Connacht to grab a losing bonus point. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht looked to be on for their third try after a big break-out from sub Darragh Leader in the closing minutes, but Poolman agonisingly knocked on Robbie Henshaw’s brilliant offload with the tryline begging.

The rain finally fell as Owens called time on this contest, but Connacht will keep fighting in their quest for Champions Cup rugby.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Danie Poolman, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki (Darragh Leader ’69), Matt Healy; Miah Nikora (Jack Carty ’60), Kieran Marmion (John Cooney ’66); Denis Buckley (Ronan Loughney ’68), Tom McCartney (Shane Delahunt ’69), Rodney Ah You (Finlay Bealham ’69); Quinn Roux (Ultan Dillane ’58), Aly Muldowney; John Muldoon (capt.), Eoghan Masterson, George Naoupu (Eoin McKeon ’51).

ULSTER: Louis Ludik (Stuart McCloskey ’58); Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Darren Cave (Ian Humphreys ’72), Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Rory Best (capt.), Wiehahn Herbst (Bronson Ross ’65); Dan Tuohy, Franco van der Merwe; Iain Henderson (Robbie Diack ’65), Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.

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Replacements not used: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Clive Ross, Paul Marshall.

Referee: Nigel Owens [WRU].

Attendance: 5,921.

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