Monday 26 June 2017

Europe hopes fading fast for Connacht as Ulster kick on

Ulster 23 Connacht 7

Ulster's Charles Piutau is tackled by Connacht players Jack Carty, left, and Rory Parata during the Guinness PRO12 match between at the Kingsman Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ulster's Charles Piutau is tackled by Connacht players Jack Carty, left, and Rory Parata during the Guinness PRO12 match between at the Kingsman Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Connacht haven't won here since 1960 and, after another depressing defeat with a patched-up team, there is little reason to suspect they won't win in the Kingspan until 2060.

Their chances of qualifying for Champions Cup rugby next season - in the absence of them winning it this May - have thus receded; Ulster keep alive their chances of being in the Pro12 play-offs.

Ulster’s Kieran Treadwell wins possession in a lineout against James Cannon of Connacht during the Pro12 clash at Kingsman Stadium in Belfast last night. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Ulster’s Kieran Treadwell wins possession in a lineout against James Cannon of Connacht during the Pro12 clash at Kingsman Stadium in Belfast last night. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Tries from Stuart McCloskey in the first half, and second-half scores from Clive Ross and Paddy Jackson's unerring boot backboned them the win which will buffer them against a trip to Dublin when they must field a weaker team.

Connacht, who shipped several more serious knocks here and finished with 14 players, have nothing but woe as they prepare to entertain Munster.

Cascaded

Ten seconds in, we had our first scrum feed of the evening as the sleet cascaded upon us. It had the look of that kind of night.

Ulster's Clive Ross, 6, is congratulated by his team-mates after scoring his side's second try at the Kingsman Stadium. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Ulster's Clive Ross, 6, is congratulated by his team-mates after scoring his side's second try at the Kingsman Stadium. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

When Kieran Marmion spent the next ten seconds peering into the aforementioned scrum for a ball that never came, it had the look of a long kind of night for the visitors.

An early Ulster spillage and a careless loss on the floor allowed the visitors to settle and, momentarily at least, silence the hosts, now well lubricated both inside and outside their shivering skins.

Connacht mixed up their game well initially, a little chip from the in-form Jack Carty here, a little snipe from Kieran Marmion there and their defining strategy was clearly to get to the edges as soon as was practicable.

Ulster were content to soak up the early pressure, as well as providing dashes of their own colour.

Iain Henderson was sublime in the early throes, bursting through from a vacated ruck, stealing lineout throws and generally making a wonderful nuisance of himself in tight and loose.

Referee George Clancy was also making a nuisance of himself, whistling for four penalties against the home side in the opening 15 minutes as the game struggled to gain any traction despite the relatively improved conditions, as Storm Barbara nipped inside for a quick nip of something herself to thwart the cold.

Connacht's Ciaran Gaffney battles through a tackle by Ulster's Darren Cave. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Connacht's Ciaran Gaffney battles through a tackle by Ulster's Darren Cave. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The home halves, Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson, were imperceptibly gaining more control of things and, when Dave Heffernan got a taxi offside on the 22, Jackson extracted the maximum fare with the game's opening penalty in the 21st minute.

They fiddled and foostered around for the next few minutes but were relatively unscathed as Connacht didn't look like they were going anywhere any time soon either.

From another of a series of turnovers from either side on halfway, though, Ulster pounced for the opening try and, even at this early stage - the 27th minute - it seemed like an obviously decisive one given Connacht's painful history in these parts and their current absence of 21 players.

Ulster made decisive ground from halfway thanks to the wonderful poise and power of Charles Piutau's shimmering class and when their next recycle took place deep within the 22, the stretched Connacht defence hinted at the grisly outcome for them and the favourable promise for Ulster.

Needless to say, Pienaar gobbled up the ball and fed the shortside where Stuart McCloskey did the rest, freewheeling untouched to dot down; Jackson nailed the conversion and, emphasising his place-kicking excellence of late, another penalty besides, to steer his side into an already unassailable 13-0 lead before the half-time hot toddies.

Connacht, already down to the bare bones, were minus two more players before the break; Finlay Bealham took a heavy blow before bowing to the inevitable just as McCloskey scored his try; Danie Poolman, already filling an unfamiliar centre role, would follow soon after.

Never mind a new stadium, Connacht rugby need a new infirmary at this horrendous rate of injury.

Ulster, despite a horrendous brace of knock-ons from Roger Wilson - one shudders to conceive of the damage he might have caused when attempting to pin the angel atop the family Christmas tree - weren't that pushed to maintain their advantage.

Connacht's own rash batch of errors saw to that; "let me entertain you", intoned Robbie Williams, vainly.

They hadn't won here since 1960 and another year, it seemed inevitable, wasn't going to puncture one of the last unwritten pages of history Pat Lam had hoped to script before terminating his epochal association with his province.

Lesser

More worryingly, it seems that the lesser regions of European rugby will probably be their station next season as it is becoming increasingly likely, as they begin to drift away from the top six, that qualification will not be possible.

Ulster, whose European campaign is threatening to unravel, need to make the play-offs in this competition and that passage, as always seems the case, rarely appears to be an iron-cast certainty and a recent run of three successive league defeats reawakened familiar anxieties in these parts.

It was little surprise that Wilson was hooked at half-time; lamentably, many others remained and the standard of play raised not a jot as the ball was spilled with appalling regularity.

Piutau, naturally, remained an exception, another dazzling run from his own half spearing the spreadeagled Connacht defence, creating the position for Pienaar to grubber; Marmion just edged his race to beat Luke Marshall to the touchdown.

Clive Ross would soon add Ulster's second on the back of this pressure.

Connacht responded with a surprise score to buck the trend, Piutau's suspect defence undone by Matt Healy before Carty skated over in the 56th minute, adding the conversion for 20-7.

Jackson slotted another penalty as time, agonisingly, shuffled on too slowly.

Connacht felt every second of the pain.

Ulster - C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, (T Bowe 74) J Stockdale; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 54); A Warwick (C Black 57), R Best capt (R Herring 67), R Ah You (W Herbst 57); K Treadwell, I Henderson; C Ross, C Henry, R Wilson (S Reidy h-t).

Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, D Poolman (C Gaffney 37), M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 66); D Buckley (T McCartney 77), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 66), F Bealham (JP Cooney 28); Q Roux (U Dillane 55), J Cannon; S O'Brien, N Fox-Matamua (N Dawai 64), J Muldoon (E McKeon 67).

Ref - G Clancy (IRFU)

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