Friend in high places as Connacht put Ulster to the sword at the Sportsground
Connacht 21 Ulster 12
Connacht leapfrogged Munster into second place in Conference A for 24 hours at least as tries from Shane Delahunt, Bundee Aki and Caolin Blade led Andy Friend’s side to a first double over Ulster.
It was an impressive display from Friend’s side and they will be thrilled to have held on for the win after Jordi Murphy’s try 13 minutes from time turned the heat up on the home side.
After the attacking feast that Connacht were involved in at the RDS last weekend, this was an altogether more nervous start. But playing into the wind, Connacht settled quickly.
The opening score came for Friend’s side, off the back of a dominant scrum which earned the game’s first penalty after 10 minutes.
Jack Carty kicked to the corner and while a trick play saw Quinn Roux come close, eventually Delahunt barged over from close range and Carty converted.
An accidental offside put Connacht on the front foot straight away and Blade had a try chalked off for a double movement.
But with a penalty advantage to play with, which they chose a scrum from, Connacht stretched their lead to 14-0 when Aki showed brilliant power and footwork to score.
Ulster were totally dominated in that first half-hour, but a smart break from Angus Kernohan drew a key penalty, and after their driving lineout was halted, they hit back in bizarre circumstances.
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A cross-field kick from Johnny McPhillips looked to be heading into the arms of Cian Kelleher but as the Connacht winger lost the flight of the ball, it struck him on the head and Kernohan had a simple job to touchdown.
John Cooney added the tough sideline conversion to make it 14-7 at the interval.
Considering they had been so dominant only to see their lead halved, this was a real test of Connacht’s confidence after their Leinster collapse last time out but they hit the second half with real intensity.
And try number three soon arrived in the 43rd minute and it was a brilliantly worked score.
Gavin Thornbury claimed a lineout at the tail and the Connacht maul worked its way infield, creating a huge short side, which they attacked.
Kyle Godwin’s chip over the top sent Ulster backpedaling, but the bounce was kind for Carty and he sent Blade over for a stunning try.
Ulster were certainly rocked by that score and McPhillips’s restart went straight into touch. Another scrum penalty was earned by Connacht – their third from three put ins – from the resulting set-piece.
Carty missed the kick from halfway though and their lead remained at 21-7.
Dan McFarland’s side came into this game on the back of four consecutive wins and they showed some of that determination with a good attacking set after 52 minutes. But they met a Connacht defence that was in superb form and eventually replacement Stuart McCloskey knocked on, which eased the pressure on the home side.
A brilliant break from Colby Fainga’a almost gave Connacht the bonus point try and with Thornbury in excellent lineout form – he turned over Rob Herring throws twice – they continued to pile the pressure on the northern province.
A minute after his introduction Ultan Dillane was sin binned when he infringed at a lineout and straight away Jordi Murphy scored when Ulster mauled from the lineout, although Cooney missed the conversion.
Aki slotted in at No 8 for the closing stages and with a nine-point lead they easily held on for victory.
Scorers – Connacht: S Delahunt, B Aki, C Blade tries; J Carty 3 cons. Ulster: A Kernohan, J Murphy tries; J Cooney con.
Connacht – D Leader; C Kelleher, T Farrell, B Aki, K Godwin (S Fitzgerald 63); J Carty (D Horwitz 77), C Blade (J Mitchell 77); D Buckley (P McCabe 66), S Delahunt (D Heffernan 54), C Carey (D Robertson McCoy 40); G Thornbury, Q Roux (U Dillane 66); S O’Brien, C Fainga’a, J Butler (P Boyle 64).
Ulster – L Ludik; H Speight (D Shanahan 60), W Addison, D Cave, A Kernohan; J McPhillips (P Nelson 52), J Cooney; E O’Sullivan (T O’Hagan 48) (O’Sullivan 67), R Herring (A McBurney 77), M Moore (R Kane 48); I Nagle (C Ross 77), K Treadwell; N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee (G Jones 46 HIA).
Ref – Marius Mitrea (FIR).