Something for everyone as two tribes call it quits
CONNACHT 15 ULSTER 15
Offered the chance of cementing their excellent start to the season with a place in the top three of the Magners League, Connacht had to settle for two points, and fourth place in the table at the Sportsground last night.
They were happy enough with that, and Ulster too will be pleased that their unbeaten status continues, putting them third in the table.
Despite the absence of a try it was a quality game played on a good track, and before a crowd of 3,761 which was a decent attendance in perfect conditions. You would hope it continues for Connacht are playing good rugby and with only one defeat from five starts Eric Elwood is clearly going the right way about things.
Again their set-piece was good, and combined with the accuracy of Ian Keatley, who nailed five from six shots on goal, their percentages are sound. They know too that they could readily have lost it though. Replacement Niall O'Connor, having struck a tremendous penalty on 69 minutes to put Ulster 15-12 ahead, had another, easier, chance three minutes later and missed. Subsequently he lined up a drop goal which never got the required altitude or direction.
And in the same breath Ulster might have gone home empty handed. In one of those dramatic moments which mark Sean Cronin out as a serious prospect, the hooker collected an overthrow at the tail of the line and punted perfectly -- then he chased hard and fast, and suddenly the Connacht crowd were on their feet sensing a late win.
It didn't happen, but still most went home happy. That would have included Declan Kidney and his three coaches who left with an enhanced view of Gavin Duffy, who is playing the best rugby of his career. However they also departed with yet another snapshot of the miserable story that is Stephen Ferris's fight to stay fit long enough to deliver on his awesome potential. Without a serious shift in his fortune you'd really worry about his future.
This was also an opportunity for Kidney and co to have a look at Paddy Wallace at outhalf, a move they had requested Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin to make. With Ruan Pienaar due to get his boots on next week, Ulster -- even allowing for the fact the Springbok has come to Ravenhill as a scrumhalf -- have more cover at 10 than any club in Christendom.
Either way Wallace was good, and missing a handy enough penalty with the last kick of the half didn't detract from that. His opposite number, too, was impressive in a man of the match performance, despite losing concentration late in the day when he was a step ahead of himself in dropping a handy pass in his 22. It gave Ulster a great attacking platform but Connacht managed to disrupt it. That was a good result for them because they had suffered at the hands of referee Alain Rolland who seemed to penalise Jamie Hagan, and subsequently excuse BJ Botha -- who went off injured -- when other decisions could have been handed down.
In a game as tight as this they were big calls. Level at half time 6-6, and then level at the end, the only difference in the stats was the yellow card haul which Ulster lost 2-1. You would never accuse Andrew Trimble of malice but the effect of his utterly reckless tackle in the air on Mike McComish could have had more serious consequences. It didn't look good when the ground broke the fall of the number eight's head.
He continued, but his team couldn't make much capital from Trimble's departure. On the review tomorrow, Brian McLaughlin will be concerned about the accuracy of his attack, but he should he happy that his team are on track with Pienaar about to come into the mix. As for Eric Elwood, it was another good night that conceivably could have been better. Not bad when so many of their nights have been a whole lot worse.
Scorers -- Connacht: I Keatley 5 pens Ulster: P Wallace 4 pens; N O'Connor pen
Connacht: G Duffy (M Nikora); T Nathan, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy (Capt)(C Willis 63); B Wilkison (R Loughney 52), S Cronin, J Hagan, M Swift, B Upton (A Browne 48), M McCarthy, M McComish, R Ofisa (yc 19- 29)
Ulster: J Smith; P Emerick (yc 25- 35; D McIlwaine 67), D Cave, I Whitten (N O'Connor 55), A Trimble (yc 64-74); P Wallace, P Marshall; B Young (BJ Botha h-t; P McAllister 77), R Best (Capt), T Court, T Barker (D Tuohy 55), R Caldwell, S Ferris (W Faloon 12), P Wannenburg, C Henry
Referee: A Rolland (IRFU)