Five-try Ulster hold on at the Sportsground
Connacht 20 Ulster 27
This Irish derby had everything at the Sportsground but the grand finale the home fans so desired.
Ulster would have imagined that five tries would have been more than enough to leave Galway comfortably back in the top two of the Guinness Pro12, but instead they were left clinging on to two of their five points as Connacht went in search of a draw to keep their European dreams alive.
Instead, they had to make do with just the losing bonus after an epic tussle which leaves their chances of qualifying automatically for next season’s Champions Cup in peril.
Not for the first time this season they failed to match their own huge commitment with matching accuracy and Ulster punished their mistakes ruthlessly.
After a pre-game stand-off saw both teams head to the College End in the hope of playing against the gusty wind until referee Nigel Owens convinced Rory Best to head back the other way, Ulster started like a train and were 5-0 up within five minutes.
Returning New Zealander Bundee Aki knocked the ball on in his own territory and the ruthless men in white went for the jugular, Jared Payne scything through a big gap in the defence and off-loading to Craig Gilroy who made it to the 5m line.
The forwards took over, taking the ball through multiple phases with Iain Henderson making further ground before Louis Ludik managed his way over in the corner.
Although Ruan Pienaar missed the conversion it was another poor start from Connacht who have a tendancy to make life hard for themselves.
However, they then spent most of the next 25 minutes in possession of the ball in an exhibition of how to play against the wind.
Pienaar missed a long-range penalty to further his side’s lead during a spell in which Ulster had to do without the ball for long stretches, tackling big Connacht ball carriers repeatedly as the home side were kept ticking over by the sharp-looking Kieran Marmion and Aki who was hungrily showing up for work at every turn.
He almost capped their spell of dominance with a try after Ulster were forced over their own line and, as Pienaar looked to execute a box-kick, Aki nipped around the corner and touched it down. Owens went upstairs as Connacht celebrated, but he and television match official Jude Quinn adjudged that Pienaar had been the first to apply downward pressure on the ball.
Despite being awarded the scrum, Connacht found themselves shunted back and Chris Henry helped his side win a penalty that allowed them to clear their lines.
They’d live to regret not scoring during their period of dominance when Aki attempted to off-load on the edge of his own ‘22 on 32 minutes and knocked on. Paddy Jackson’s quick thinking put Tommy Bowe one on one with second-row Quinn Roux and the Ireland wing needed no invitation, skinning the big man before going through Matt Healy to score.
Pienaar again missed the conversion and, considering the wind, 10-0 wouldn’t have been a bad half-time scoreline, but they committed Hari Kari in their own ‘22 again when Tiernan O’Halloran dallied before being charged down by Henderson.
Ulster piled through, won the ball back and Jackson again spotted Roux in the wide channels, gave the ball to Gilroy and he did the rest.
This time Pienaar nailed the conversion to give his side a 17 point cushion at the break.
That lasted five minutes as Pat Lam’s side came out of the blocks as if their season was on the line with Matt Healy leading the charge.
The winger wrestled his way out of Henry’s tackle to score after the Aly Muldowney had charged past Pienaar after clever play on the deck from Rodney Ah You.
Miah Nikora nailed the conversion and, after it looked like Aki was through until Robbie Henshaw’s pass was called forward, he narrowed the score further from the tee when Ulster’s scrum went against the head and Owens awarded the penalty the home side’s way.
In 10 minutes, they had made it a one-score game
A dubious penalty after Muldowney had claimed the restart handed Ulster a way in, but John Muldoon’s brilliant work to deny the visitors’ maul repelled the advance.
However, Nikora couldn’t get much out of his clearance and, although Connacht stole the resulting lineout, Rory Best won it back instantly before Henderson made a big carry in midfield and Jackson worked an overlap wide where Darren Cave put Bowe over in the right corner.
Ulster had the bonus point, but Pienaar missed his third conversion out of four to leave the gap at 12 and replacement Jack Carty cut that back to nine with a penalty after coming on on the hour-mark.
Connacht botched the restart and then Healy was pinged for not rolling away. Best instructed Jackson to go to the corner and then touched down at the base of the maul to end the game as a contest.
Again Pienaar missed the conversion to leave the bonus point available for Connacht if they could score a converted try, but Lam’s side looked tired as they went in search of one last push.
They managed it in no time at all, replacement scrum-half John Cooney making the initial break before the forwards went through the phases, probing for gaps. Carty spotted the overlap and his flighted pass put O’Halloran over in the corner.
Carty needed to kick the touchline conversion and duly did to make it a seven point game and, having defended their own ‘22 for a period, they broke from inside their own half with Darragh Leader racing into Ulster territory on the switch with Danie Poolman and the forwards working through the phases with help from the excellent Carty.
Then, they went for it out wide, Henshaw off-loading to Poolman who knocked on with the line at his mercy.
It finished with both sides pushing but ultimately Connacht had given themselves too much to do.
CONNACHT -- T O’Halloran; D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki ((D Leader 69), M Healy; M Nikora (J Carty 60), K Marmion (J Cooney 65); D Buckley (R Loughney 69), T McCartney (S Delahunt 69), R Ah You (F Bealham 69); Q Roux (U Dillane 58-72), A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, G Naoupu (E McKeon 51).
ULSTER -- L Ludik (S McCloskey 57); T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson (I Henserson 70), R Pienaar; C Black (A Warwick 75), R Best (capt), W Herbst (B Ross 66); D Tuohy, F vd Merwe; I Henderson (R Diack 65), C Henry, R Wilson.
Referee: N Owens (Wales)