Connacht are determined to do this the hard way.
The bonus point Jack Carty secured in Saturday’s epic encounter with Ulster kept their ever-loosening grip on sixth place intact but with all four of the top teams claiming full houses at the weekend, a run-in that combines home games against Glasgow Warriors and Ospreys with a trip to Zebre is looking daunting.
For the second successive week they gave their opponents a head start and couldn’t rein them in. They dominated their neighbours to the north on almost every line of the stats sheet and yet it was Neil Doak’s men who left for Belfast with five points.
Pat Lam likes to talk about Connacht’s journey and it is proving to be a bumpy road. Despite playing well into a strong wind after a bizarre pre-game stand-off in which neither side wanted to have the elements at their back until referee Nigel Owens ordered Ulster over the halfway line, the home side went in 17-0 down at the break.
In between Louis Ludik’s fifth-minute try and a quick-fire pair from wings Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy after the half-hour mark, Connacht had owned possession and spent most of the time in Ulster territory.
The tactics were perfect for the conditions, but they couldn’t break through the white wall and, when they eventually made mistakes, Ulster made them pay with well-worked tries that showed a ruthless streak that will come in handy in the weeks to come.
“We were very clinical. They had opportunities and when it comes to inter-pros, when it comes to the end of the season, you have to be clinical,” Bowe, who returned to the scoresheet with a double after a barren Six Nations, said of his team who sit third behind Glasgow and Munster on the table.
“That’s the way Leinster have been in the last couple of years. When they get into your half they always come away with points and that is what really punishes teams. It’s something that we have been working on, something that the team have been working when we have been away and hopefully we can keep pushing that on because we have three enormous matches still to go.”
Those games pit Ulster against three of their top-five rivals, with Leinster travelling north five days after facing Toulon before Munster head to Kingspan Stadium. They won’t want to be chasing anything heading to Glasgow on the final day.
In front of the watching Les Kiss, Paddy Jackson impressed despite a loose kick or two, while Iain Henderson was excellent with ball in hand.
Yet, from a commanding position, Ulster were hanging on at the end and, had Robbie Henshaw’s offload to Danie Poolman stuck with two minutes on the clock, the spoils might have been shared as Connacht gave a rousing second-half performance led by Aly Muldowney and Bundee Aki to earn themselves a bonus point.
That came through an excellent individual effort from Matt Healy, the boot of Miah Nikora and Tiernan O’Halloran’s try which was converted from the touchline by Carty.
But the losing bonus just didn’t seem like enough on a day where Scarlets managed a win in Zebre, but Edinburgh were hammered by Munster.
It could have been more as they dominated Ulster’s scrum and did damage to their lineout but their error-count cost them dear as Bowe and Rory Best pounced for tries. It was a lesson that Lam thought his team had learnt before Saturday.
“I think we knew that coming in, when you play any team that is superior when it comes to quality and caps you know you’ll be punished because they just play at a different level and it’s great that we’re playing at this level at this stage of the season,” he said.
“I know that for the young guys it will certainly be a big lesson and, ultimately, while we plan for it, talk about it, that’s part of it, when it happens it certainly has a big impact on us.”
Certainly Bowe believes the western province are on the right track.
“They are not far off. We were very worried coming down here to the Sportsground today. We know exactly the type of rugby they have been playing,” the Lions winger said. “They have got class all over the team. I think they were clinical at times too, they scored some great tries.
“They cut us open at times but it’s hard to put your finger on; they have made huge strides.
“I know just chatting to the guys that I know in the team they are very excited by it, enjoying their rugby, playing under Pat Lam. It was a super crowd so it’s great to see Connacht Rugby flying high.
“They have had some great results so far in the Sportsground and we’re just delighted to come away with the win. Five points is obviously an extra bonus but for us to get the win was the most important thing.”
Both teams remain in control of their own destiny, but Connacht’s grip is slipping.
Connacht – T O’Halloran; D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki ((D Leader 69), M Healy; M Nikora (J Carty 60), K Marmion (J Cooney 65); D Buckley (R Loughney 69), T McCartney (S Delahunt 69), R Ah You (F Bealham 69); Q Roux (U Dillane 58-72), A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, G Naoupu (E McKeon 51).
Ulster – L Ludik (S McCloskey 57); T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave (I Humphreys 70), C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black (A Warwick 75), R Best (capt), W Herbst (B Ross 66); D Tuohy, F van der Merwe; I Henderson (R Diack 65), C Henry, R Wilson.
ref – N Owens (Wales)