Irresistible Ulster turn on style
Connacht 18 Ulster 34 Pro12 league
CREDIT Connacht with a performance full of ambition and spirit, credit Ulster with having the nous and the skill to absorb the pressure that was applied and rise above it to score a superb win.
This was a totally absorbing and enjoyable game where you didn't dare divert your eyes for even the briefest of moments for fear you'd miss some of the action as the match rampaged up and down the field with great intensity.
Before the first quarter had elapsed the raucous crowd were treated to four superb tries, each one better than the last.
Connacht drew first blood inside three minutes. Dan Parks measured a Garryowen to perfection. When Andrew Trimble's feet touched the grass after gathering just outside the Ulster '22' he was hit by Kieran Marmion with the ferocity of a dump-truck.
The Connacht forwards sensed an opportunity and poured in to snaffle possession. In the blink of an eye the ball was whipped wide to Mike McCarthy, who showed the dexterity of a surgeon to play in George Naoupu for the try.
Six minutes later, Ulster showed their potential when they scythed through the defence with unforgiving ruthlessness. From their own 10-metre line the ball went through seven pairs of hands before Stuart Olding touched down under the posts.
The crowd scarcely had time to draw breath before Ulster stretched their lead. Trimble was involved twice as he passed to Ruan Pienaar after his initial break and then took a gorgeous reverse pass from the back of Pienaar's hands for the touchdown.
It was truly sublime stuff as both sides showed an attacking verve that warmed the crowd up on a cold but bright night as the hardening sod afforded both sides the chance to showcase their offensive skills.
Two more tries came in the first half. First Connacht's Fetu'u Vainikolo touched down to gain parity with a minute left to play in the opening quarter. Rory Best then got in on the act when he peeled off the back of a great rolling maul for their third try as Ulster turned over seven points to the good.
As the second half unfolded the contest was never less than riveting as Connacht drove mightily through their well-drilled forwards to dispute possession and ensure a ready supply for their own speedy three-quarters.
In this endeavour Brian Murphy and wing Vainikolo were immensely effective but it was their forwards who were making this a contest. They were magnificent, with second-row McCarthy and No 8 Naoupu working themselves into a state of near exhaustion.
Eventually, though, the uniform strength of the Ulster pack in the set-pieces and the presence of several players of special talent behind began to highlight some weaknesses in the tiring Connacht defence.
Scrum-half Ruan Pienaar was the ultimate orchestrator and his efficient work ensured that the Ulster backs, particularly the increasingly impressive Olding, were always threatening.
As the game entered the final quarter, Ulster began to lay siege to the defences. They were initially repelled by some heroic defending and with the gap down to four points thanks to a Miah Nikora penalty you could sense Connacht beginning to believe an upset was possible.
Their belief hardened just shy of the 65th minute when, despite sustained shelling by Ulster's forces, they held resilient and unyielding. Ulster thought they were over for the bonus-point try but a trip upstairs to the TMO confirmed they had been held up.
The crowd roared their approval and the Connacht players appeared to grow in stature as the confidence surged through them.
On a night when Connacht's preparations were upset before even a ball was kicked due to the dislocated thumb injury sustained by U-20 international Robbie Henshaw their efforts were commendable.
Henshaw will undergo a scan to assess the extent of the injury but is now a serious doubt for Ireland's end of season tour to the USA and Canada.
There was an inevitable toll to be paid for Connacht's defence and when Iain Henderson gathered a slackly executed up-and-under he barrelled through the defensive wall before offloading with a gorgeous pass off the back of his palms for Tommy Bowe. Bowe continued his great line to career through and over. It was a try that exemplified the attacking nous of the Ulster players and all but wrapped up the four points for the visitors.
They weren't done however and had one more trick up their sleeve. Paddy Jackson secured a loose ball and as the ruck formed Pienaar moved quickly to feed Bowe. The wing wasted no time in flashing the ball to Jared Payne and the full-back raced from inside his own half to touch down for the game's final try.
Connacht, to their immense credit, sought to rescue something from the contest and were camped on the Ulster line for the final few minutes.
The Ulster defence never gave them an opening though and held out for the win that brings them ever closer to securing a home semi-final. A win over Cardiff in Ravenhill in the final regulation game of the season will secure that.
Connacht – G Duffy; D Poolman, E Griffin, B Murphy, F Vainikolo (M Healy 76); D Parks (M Nikora 47), K Marmion (P O'Donoghue 70); B Wilkinson (R Ah You 57), A Flavin (E Reynecke55), R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; M Kearney (A Browne 62), J Muldoon, G Naoupu (M Fifita 76).
Ulster – J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, T Bowe; P Jackson (JP Cooney 77), R Pienaar (P Marshall 76); T Court (C Black 72), R Best (R Herring 73), R Lutton (J Afoa 47), L Stevenson (J Muller 44), D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams (I Henderson 61).
Ref – P Fitzgibbon (IRFU)