WATCH - Jacob Stockdale scores contender for try of the season as Connacht's Belfast hoodoo continues
Ulster 16 Connacht 8
Jacob Stockdale made a flying start to his Ireland career in June and in front of the watching Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell he staked his claim for a big role in November tonight.
The 21-year-old Ulster winger was the stand-out performer in a middling encounter at the Kingspan Stadium, scoring the winning try for the home side, who will need big improvements when Wasps come to town next week.
Behind at half-time having scored just three points on the back of last week’s defeat to Zebre, Les Kiss’s men responded to a less than impressed home crowd with a much-improved performance to get back to winning ways.
For Connacht coach Kieran Keane, it was a deeply frustrating night and a fifth defeat in his first six games.
The first-half was slow getting going and the home fans were left frustrated as their team passed up a succession of opportunities and found themselves behind at the break.
Stockdale was the stand-out performer in the early stages, but his team-mates weren’t on the same page and couldn’t connect when he made breaks.
The first one saw him scorch Cian Kelleher on the outside, but John Cooney couldn’t hold his pass. Minutes later, the 21-year-old broke Jack Carty’s tackle and freed his hands when Tom Farrell hit him but Christian Lealiifano fumbled under borderline illegal pressure from Bundee Aki.
Luke Marshall was the next guilty party after a half-break from Cooney and excellent work from Charles Piutau led to a big overlap on the right but the Ireland centre couldn’t keep his composure and another chance passed.
Cooney opened the scoring with a long-range penalty, but that score was cancelled out before half-time when Connacht earned a third-scrum penalty and having failed to make the first two pay, it was third time lucky.
In fairness, luck had little to do with it as they constructed a fine try. After a few set-up plays, deft hands from Aki and Farrell released John Muldoon up the left and he made big gains.
Quinn Roux set things up in midfield, before Carty and Jarrad Butler created space out wide where Kelleher drew Stockdale and fed Butler inside. A combination of Lealiifano and Stuart McCloskey held the Australian up short, but Tom McCartney wouldn’t be denied when he picked and forced his way over from the ruck.
Carty couldn’t add the extras but his side headed in at half-time two points up.
That lead lasted just four second-half minutes as Ulster came out of the traps quickly and got Iain Henderson into the game. That put the visitors on the back-foot and eventually Eoin McKeon strayed offside in front of the posts and Cooney obliged.
After a pretty turgid opening 40, a game of helter-skelter rugby broke out with both sides having a cut and a breathless series of play ended with the home fans howling in anger at referee Andy Brace who correctly ignored a perceived late hit on Piutau by Steve Crosbie but awarded a penalty against Henderson for not rolling away.
Carty nudge his side in front but suddenly the previously quiet Kingspan Stadium came to life and their team responded with Cooney kicking a penalty after Muldoon was penalised for hands in the ruck.
And they doubled down with a cracking counter-attack try that will have the Connacht coaches tearing their hair out.
It could easily have been the men in green celebrating as their endeavour in their own ‘22 saw the ball worked wide to Matt Healy who raced clear, but instead of finding the inside run of Kieran Marmion he opted to chip over Piutau’s head.
The kick was poor and the All Black gathered, evading the tired attempted tackle and finding Stockdale inside him. The youngster picked his way through green jerseys and returned the ball to Piutau who drew Carty and put Stockdale over for a deserved score.
Cooney’s conversion made it a two-score game and having earlier lost Tiernan O’Halloran, Connacht were forced to finish the game without Carty who injured himself in the tackle.
Their error-count continued to rise and successive ventures into the Ulster ‘22 came to nothing as their maul was held up and Marmion knocked on.
Ulster seemed content to close the game out, but they gave Connacht a chance to secure a losing-bonus point with two penalty concessions leading to Jean Deysel seeing the game out in the sin-bin. Crosbie kicked to the corner, but the visitors couldn’t breach the 14 man defence and left empty-handed.
ULSTER – C Piutau; T Bowe (L Ludik 58), L Marshall, S McCloskey, Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring (J Andrew 76), W Herbst (R Ah You 68); A O’Connor (R Diack 50), K Treadwell; I Henderson, C Henry (capt) (S Reidy 55), J Deysel.
CONNACHT – T O’Halloran (S Crosbie 12); C Kelleher, B Aki, T Farrell, M Healy; J Carty (E Griffin 58), K Marmion (C Blade 72); D Buckley (D Coulsen 66), T McCartney (D Heffernan 50), F Bealham (C Carey 70); U Dillane, Q Roux (J Cannon 58); E McKeon (J Muldoon 70), J Butler, J Muldoon (capt) (E Masterson 63)
ref – A Brace (IRFU)