Connacht march hits wall in Belfast
Ulster men miss out on bonus point as Westerners hold out with 13 men at death
Connacht will be replaced at the top of the table if Leinster manage to beat Munster this evening, yet, while they left the Kingspan Stadium with nothing tangible last night, the manner of their last-quarter hold-out demonstrated just why they have been the league's trail-blazers this season.
Ulster 18 Connacht 10
Down to 13 men for the last seven minutes, the Westerners denied Ulster the bonus point that would really have ignited their chase for a play-off spot. Les Kiss's men are in the top four this morning, but their place in the post-season is not a sure thing.
Ulster, who lost Stuart McCloskey late on to what looked like a serious shoulder injury, came into the game in dire need of a victory, preferably one with four tries, and they had the chances to get their flagging campaign back on track.
But despite dominating the tackle area against a depleted Connacht side who looked like the win over Leinster had taken a toll, the northern province just couldn't add to Rory Best's and Craig Gilroy's tries.
On a filthy night in Belfast, the home side disrupted the Westerners' attempts to retain possession by double-tackling on the gainline and driving the men in green backwards early on.
Last Saturday, Lam's men were able to frustrate Leinster through their ability to keep the ball but found life far more difficult as they were met by a fast-moving white wall whenever they had possession.
Both sides played with ambition despite the difficult handling conditions, but the league leaders couldn't get a foothold, even if the home side's over-enthusiasm cost them valuable field position as they were repeatedly penalised for coming in at the side.
Still, they built a 6-0 lead through Paddy Jackson who punished penalty concessions from Tom McCartney and Andrew Browne to ease his side in front. Craig Gilroy almost raced free from a loose Bundee Aki offload only to be caught by Shane O'Leary, but Connacht grew into the half and John Muldoon and James Connolly surged into the opposition '22 only for Robbie Henshaw to be penalised for holding on under pressure from Peter Browne.
Ulster's intensity at the breakdown helped earn them the all-important first try as Iain Henderson forced a key turnover and Muldoon came in from the side. Jackson found touch and, from 15 metres out, Ulster mauled the ball over with Best touching down.
Jackson couldn't convert his captain's try but the 11-point lead looked almost insurmountable for the visitors. However, this campaign has filled Connacht with real steel and they weren't about to lie down. A partially charged-down kick from John Cooney almost broke for them as Muldoon charged into open country and found his scrum-half only for Payne to force him into touch, before O'Leary was off target with his first effort from the tee as half-time approached.
Pienaar put his side under pressure with a woeful cross-kick that was compounded by Roger Wilson's knock-on.
Connacht forced a penalty from the scrum and O'Leary got his side on to the scoreboard with the last kick of the half.
Any momentum they got from that score was gone within four minutes of the restart, however, as Henshaw messed up from the restart and Ulster went in search of their second try. They coughed up a penalty under the posts, but O'Leary missed his chance to alleviate the pressure as Gilroy kept his kick to touch in and a few phases later he was on the end of a cleverly worked try, taking Payne's offload to score in the corner.
Jackson converted and a seventh successive win looked beyond Connacht despite there being 35 minutes remaining.
Lam introduced Ultan Dillane, however, and the Tralee native infused his side with belief and two offloads later Andrew Trimble was heading for the sin-bin after slapping down Aki's pass as a two-man overlap went a-begging.
Connacht kicked to touch, but again their execution let them down on the '22 as they failed to get numbers to Henshaw and Luke Marshall turned the ball over, only for Aki to spot the ball was out and win a scrum for his side.
The visitors continued to probe wide and eventually got their reward with Muldoon keeping the ball alive in contact and finding Eoin McKeon and he sent replacement scrum-half Caolin Blade crashing over.
O'Leary converted and Trimble returned to the field with the lead reduced to eight. That would be the end of Connacht's surge, however, as they struggled to get out of their own '22 for the remainder of the game and the hosts went in search of an all-important bonus point.
Try number three almost arrived as Best was somehow denied by a combination of Healy and Aki as he peeled off a maul, suffering a head injury in the process, before the visitors repelled another maul and then won a scrum penalty to lift the pressure.
O'Leary saw yellow for a borderline high tackle, before Sean O'Brien followed as the penalty count escalated.
Ulster had seven minutes against 13 men to secure the all-important extra point, but, despite their lack of numbers, Connacht's defence was exceptional.
They wound down the clock remarkably well by keeping the ball and, while they couldn't get a bonus point of their own, denying Ulster the extras might well have been important in the greater scheme of things.
ULSTER - J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall (D Cave 63), S McCloskey (S Olding 75), C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 66); C Black (K McCall 55), R Best (capt) (R Herring 66-71), R Lutton (B Ross 77); P Browne (R Diack 58), F van der Merwe; I Henderson (R Herring 78), C Henry (S Reidy 55), R Wilson.
CONNACHT - R Henshaw; N Adeolokun (D Poolman 55), B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; S O'Leary, J Cooney (C Blade 55); D Buckley (R Loughney 71), T McCartney (D Heffernan 71), R Ah You (F Bealham 45); A Browne, A Muldowney (U Dullane 45); J Muldoon (capt), J Connolly, E McKeon.
Ref - D Phillips (IRFU)