Connacht are back! Westerners secure rare victory over Ulster in thriller
Connacht 30 Ulster 25
They were slow getting going, but there was nothing sluggish about Connacht tonight as they celebrated their second win over Ulster in 21 attempts and picked up a bonus point to boot.
The Sportsground rocked like it hasn't in months ahead of the visit of Toulouse next weekend as the Guinness Pro12 champions showed that last season wasn't a flash in the pan after all.
Their breakdown work was excellent, their accuracy with ball in hand on a dry night far superior to anything seen in September and, when Ulster asked questions by wiping out a 14 point half-time lead in five minutes, they showed real character to dig in.
For Les Kiss, the unbeaten start to the season has ended and the risk of leaving Ruan Pienaar back in Belfast back-fired. They will need far more in Bordeaux next Sunday.
What may please Pat Lam most is the integration of those who weren't in Murrayfield last May, in particular Cian Kelleher who capped a brilliant performance with two tries.
Connacht started with real intent, meeting Ulster ball-carriers on the gainline and driving them backwards with force.
It reaped reward within three minutes as Dave Heffernan made a brilliant break in midfield and, with Ulster on the back-foot, Caolin Blade made more yards with a sniping run. Eoin McKeon and Andrew Browne took it on close, before Jack Carty slipped past Roger Wilson to score.
Ulster came straight back up and earned a penalty for Paddy Jackson to get them off the mark.
The game then followed a pattern of each team attacking to no avail, but it was the home side who struck for an impressive double-whammy before the half-hour mark to leave their visitors stunned.
After struggling for form in the early weeks of the season, this was a reprise of everything that made the champions so irresistible last year as they attacked with directness and width.
Kelleher finished a fine try after a brilliant Bundee Aki carry put the Ulster defence on the back foot and Tiernan O’Halloran floated the skip pass wide for the former Leinster winger to step inside Tommy Bowe and score.
Carty struck the post with the conversion, but got an almost instant chance to atone as Bowe failed to gather the restart and Aki popped the bouncing ball to Kelleher.
The 22-year-old raced into space, drew Jared Payne and found James Connolly who was caught but quickly recycled the ball. With Ulster scrambling, Aki floated the ball wide to O’Halloran who took contact rather than finding John Muldoon on his shoulder. That might have been that, but again the Connacht forwards secured quick ball and Blade spotted Connolly coming like a train. Even a strong hit from Rodney Ah You wasn't going to stop him from 5m.
Carty converted, but the pendulum swung Ulster’s direction as they set up camp in the Connacht ’22 where Payne turned down a penalty and went to touch. Three lineout mauls and four penalties later, Conor Carey was headed for the sin-bin and the visitors made their numbers count as Paul Marshall found Craig Gilroy wide left and he scored.
Jackson failed to deliver from the conversion and Carty extended his side’s lead at the other end after Iain Henderson went held on under his own posts.
That meant the hosts deservedly went in 22-8 in front, but within five minutes of the restart the league leaders were level.
A high tackle from Browne allowed Jackson kick to the corner where Ulster's superior maul powered over for Rory Best to touch down.
This time Jackson made no mistake with the conversion as he reduced the gap to seven and they were level within five minutes of the restart as Tommy Bowe raced into space from a clean lineout and sent Payne over.
Jackson again made no mistake to wipe out the half-time deficit.
Just as a high tackle had invited Ulster's comeback, a similar infringement by Clive Ross led to Kelleher's second, and Connacht's fourth, try as Craig Ronaldson who worked the overlap for the winger to cross.
The bonus point was secure, but with Carty missing the conversion the result was still in doubt.
The out-half did extend the lead to eight with a simple penalty but Jackson cancelled that out with a similar effort from right in front to set up a grandstand finish.
Both sides continued to attack, but Connacht blinked first as Ultan Dillane strayed offside. Rather than close the gap to two points by kicking the penalty, Ulster went to the line.
Connacht dealt with the maul and then repelled the carries before Brett Herron blocked Craig Ronaldson as he tried to get to Jackson and Connacht relieved the pressure.
Ross Kane needlessly picked up a yellow card for a shoulder charge as the game slipped away from the Ulstermen.
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki (S Ili 64-68), C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty (S O'Leary 72), C Blade; F Bealham (R Loughney 61), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 73), C Carey (JP Cooney 61); U Dillane, A Browne (L Stevenson 68); E McKeon (J Connolly 9) (JP Cooney 40-43), J Heenan, J Muldoon.
ULSTER - J Payne (capt); T Bowe, L Ludik (B Herron 64), D Cave (R Lyttle h-t), C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black (A Warwick 55), R Best (R Herring 62), R Ah You (R Kane 57); R Diack, P Browne (K Treadwell 63); I Henderson, C Ross (R Ah You 78), R Wilson (S Reidy 55).
Ref - G Conway (IRFU)