Two-try Kelleher steals show to help Connacht gain momentum
Connacht 30 Ulster 25
They were slow getting going, but there was nothing sluggish about Connacht last night as they celebrated only their second win over Ulster in 21 attempts and picked up a bonus point to boot.
The Sportsground rocked like it hasn't in months ahead of the visit of Toulouse next weekend as the Guinness Pro12 champions showed that last season wasn't a flash in the pan after all.
It was Pat Lam's first win over Ulster as Connacht coach and he hopes his side can draw belief from the win.
After the game, Lam had some bad news on the injury front as he confirmed that Tom McCartney, Matt Healy and Denis Buckley would be out for around eight weeks. Yet without those key men and the loss of Eoin McKeon early on to a rib injury, he was happy with the performance despite a disrupted build-up.
"It's a monkey off my back," Lam said with a smile. "We've beaten all 11 teams now, so I'm pleased. It gives us belief, we've only had five games and we've got a few to go, but it's a great build-up to next week. Toulouse here, I'm excited."
Connacht's breakdown work was excellent, their accuracy with ball in hand on a dry night far superior to anything seen in September and, when Ulster asked questions by wiping out a 14-point half-time lead within five minutes of the resumption, they showed real character to dig in.
"We showed character, we'd such a horrendous, disruptive week," added Lam. "We named a team on Monday, but it completely changed by the Captain's run.
"We have our system, but the culture is what we're about. What carried us through was culture and the belief."
For Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss, the unbeaten start to the season has ended and the risk of leaving Ruan Pienaar back in Belfast backfired. They will need far more in Bordeaux next Sunday.
"We were just poor," the Australian said. "It was a pretty ordinary performance. We showed some fight, but the boys are pretty honest in the dressing-room."
Lam was delighted with his side's defensive performance, and in attack Cian Kelleher caught the eye and capped a brilliant performance with two tries.
Connacht started with real intent, meeting Ulster ball-carriers on the gainline and driving them backwards.
It reaped reward within three minutes as Dave Heffernan made a brilliant break in midfield and, with Ulster on the back-foot, Caolin Blade made more yards with a sniping run. McKeon and Andrew Browne took it on close, before Jack Carty slipped past Roger Wilson to score.
Ulster came straight back up and earned a penalty for Paddy Jackson to get them off the mark.
The game then followed a pattern of each team attacking to no avail, but it was the home side who struck for an impressive double-whammy before the half-hour mark to leave their visitors stunned.
After struggling for form in the early weeks of the season, this was a reprise of everything that made the champions so irresistible last year as they attacked with directness and width.
Kelleher finished a fine try after a brilliant Bundee Aki carry put the Ulster defence on the back foot and Tiernan O'Halloran floated the skip pass wide for the former Leinster winger to step inside Tommy Bowe and score.
Carty struck the post with the conversion, but got an almost instant chance to atone as Bowe failed to gather the restart and Aki popped the bouncing ball to Kelleher. The 22-year-old raced into space, drew Jared Payne and found James Connolly, who was caught but quickly recycled the ball. With Ulster scrambling, Aki floated the ball wide to O'Halloran, who took contact rather than finding John Muldoon on his shoulder.
That might have been that, but again the Connacht forwards secured quick ball and Blade spotted Connolly coming like a train. Even a strong hit from Rodney Ah You wasn't going to stop him from five metres. Carty converted, but the pendulum swung Ulster's direction as they set up camp in the Connacht 22 where Payne turned down a penalty and went to touch.
Three lineout mauls and four penalties later, Conor Carey was headed for the sin-bin and the visitors made their numbers count as Paul Marshall found Craig Gilroy wide to score.
Jackson failed to deliver from the conversion and Carty extended his side's lead at the other end after Iain Henderson held on under his own posts. That meant the hosts deservedly went in 22-8 in front, but within five minutes of the restart the league leaders were level.
A high tackle from Browne allowed Jackson to kick to the corner, where Ulster's superior maul powered over for Rory Best to touch down.
This time Jackson made no mistake with the conversion as he reduced the gap to seven and they were soon level as Bowe raced into space from a clean lineout and sent Payne over. Jackson again converted to wipe out the half-time deficit.
Just as a high tackle had invited Ulster's comeback, a similar infringement by Clive Ross led to Kelleher's second, and Connacht's fourth, try as Craig Ronaldson worked the overlap for the winger to cross.
The bonus point was secure, but with Carty missing the conversion the result was still in doubt.
The out-half did extend the lead to eight with a simple penalty but Jackson cancelled that out with a similar effort from right in front to set up a grandstand finish.
Both sides continued to attack, but Connacht blinked first as Ultan Dillane strayed offside. Rather than close the gap to two points by kicking the penalty, Ulster went to the line.
Connacht dealt with the maul and then repelled the carries before Brett Herron blocked Ronaldson as he tried to get to Jackson, and Connacht relieved the pressure.
Ross Kane needlessly picked up a yellow card for a shoulder charge as the game slipped away from the Ulster men.
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki (S Ili 64-68), C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty (S O'Leary 72), C Blade; F Bealham (R Loughney 61), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 73), C Carey (JP Cooney 61); U Dillane, A Browne (L Stevenson 68); E McKeon (J Connolly 9) (JP Cooney 40-43), J Heenan, J Muldoon.
ULSTER - J Payne (capt); T Bowe, L Ludik (B Herron 64), D Cave (R Lyttle h-t), C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black (A Warwick 55), R Best (R Herring 62), R Ah You (R Kane 57); R Diack, P Browne (K Treadwell 63); I Henderson, C Ross (R Ah You 78), R Wilson (S Reidy 55).
Ref - G Conway (IRFU)