Connacht brought back down to earth
THIS was not a meeting of equals -- Ulster never gave Connacht a sniff.
Before he announced his decision to step aside as head coach out west this week, Eric Elwood spoke of backing up last week's heroic display against Leinster. His injured captain Gavin Duffy pointed out that the province had produced one-off wins before and needed to show that they could be consistent.
But once again, that proved beyond them on a difficult night in Belfast. They can take some consolation from the fact that they won't be the only team to struggle here this season.
Last year's Heineken Cup finalists returned to near full-strength, with Rory Best and Paddy Wallace making their first starts of the season, and picked up their fifth win from five games under new coach Mark Anscombe.
Castres won't fancy their trip to this venue next Friday night.
While Leinster stutter and struggle with injuries and Munster rebuild, there is plenty of evidence that the northern province could lead the way in Irish rugby this season.
Last night, they returned Ravenhill to its place as a rugby venue after its period in mourning. Two weeks ago this stadium held a remembrance service for Nevin Spence, his brother and father, and last night they paid their respects with a minute's silence; a 'Spence' jersey hung from the terrace and the players wore his initials on their jerseys.
And Ulster were able to continue the healing process by playing their second match since their team-mate's death. They won't forget, but they have to move on.
It was up front where their imposing pack did all the damage. Having taken the decision to rest prop Nathan White and hand Ronan Loughney the tighthead spot, Elwood watched in horror as his team's scrum was marched backwards time after time.
For Connacht flanker Willie Faloon, a friend and former clubmate of Spence handed the captaincy on his return to Ravenhill, there was disappointment at not backing up last week's display.
"You are back to earth after that. Last week was great but it doesn't mean a thing after that," he said. "We put ourselves under pressure, it wasn't good enough. We had different problems at scrum time, we couldn't get the cadence right."
Referee George Clancy became the centre of attention, setting and resetting the set-piece over and over. His patience wore thin, with Connacht racking up the penalty count.
Paddy Jackson knocked over a handy penalty to give the hosts an 11th-minute lead, but they had to wait another 22 for a try. Not surprisingly, it came when a Connacht scrum, without the sin-binned Dave Gannon, collapsed under the posts, and Clancy raced under the posts to award the penalty try.
Jackson added the extras and, after Dan Parks missed a chance to get the visitors off the mark, they were punished again at the other end. Michael Swift got involved off the ball, reversing a penalty that put his side under pressure, and after Jackson found touch, his forwards weren't going to be denied. After a few rumbles came up short, it No 8 Nick Williams was bundled over; Jackson converted.
With Williams providing go-forward ball, the bonus point was on offer, but Ulster never seized their chance. Connacht had a chance to pull a try back at the beginning of the second half but Robbie Henshaw just couldn't connect with Fetu'u Vainikolo, with the line at his mercy.
With White in situ, their scrum stabilised but they couldn't gain parity, even though Ulster failed to find the fluency of their win over Cardiff a week earlier. A Jackson penalty made it 20-0.
There was time for a flourish, however, as Wallace found Tommy Bowe with a cross-kick, he fed Jared Payne, who was brought down short of the line but popped the ball to Luke Marshall, who touched down.
"Definitely we had done the work in the first half to get the bonus point, but we couldn't get into it after half-time," Anscombe said. "We weren't clever enough and that was the disappointing aspect."
There is room for improvement, and that is what will worry Castres.
ULSTER -- J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble (C Gilroy 67); P Jackson (L Marshall 70), P Marshall (M Heaney 73); T Court (C Black 70), R Best (R Herring 59), J Afoa; J Muller (L Stevenson 67), D Tuohy; S Ferris (M McComish 67), C Henry, N Williams (A Macklin 76).
CONNACHT -- R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry (M Fifita BS 18-33, 69), F Vainikolo; D Parks (M Nikora 67), K Marmion (D Moore 57); B Wilkinson, A Flavin (J Harris-Wright 62), R Loughney (N White 38); M Swift, M McCarthy; D Gannon (J Muldoon 48), W Faloon (capt, J O'Connor 57), G Naoupu.
REF -- G Clancy (IRFU)