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Connacht record heroic bonus win but still have a long journey to travel

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Connacht's Mack Hansen scores his side's fifth try during their United Rugby Championship victory over Ulster at Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Connacht's Mack Hansen scores his side's fifth try during their United Rugby Championship victory over Ulster at Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Diarmuid Kilgallen of Connacht celebrates with team-mates Kieron Marmion, left, and Jack Carty, right, after scoring their side's fourth try during the United Rugby Championship match between Connacht and Ulster at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran

Diarmuid Kilgallen of Connacht celebrates with team-mates Kieron Marmion, left, and Jack Carty, right, after scoring their side's fourth try during the United Rugby Championship match between Connacht and Ulster at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran

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Connacht's Mack Hansen scores his side's fifth try during their United Rugby Championship victory over Ulster at Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Connacht 36, Ulster 11

When you’re getting the use of the hall free of charge you don’t have to worry too much about the crowd that turns up. So when it was clear the shift to the Aviva was not going to give Connacht the bumper crowd they had hoped for at least they were not sweating bullets over the accounts.

As for their battle to get their heads above water in the league within a league – the interpro dance-off for an automatic place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup – that worked out very nicely. And the vast majority of the 9,875 crowd went home happy. They still have a long way to go but this was an epic win.

It’s unlikely Andy Friend budgeted for a bonus point win with five tries but he will consider it appropriate given their trials and tribulations of late. They were far sharper than their opponents, especially when they got some space to play in the second half. It was a done deal well before the finish.

Naturally enough they had the man of the match as well, in flanker Conor Oliver, who must have only edged it ahead of Eoghan Masterson. And all this despite a poor lineout and a first half where they were blown off the field by referee Andrew Brace.

Even so they went to the changing room at the break with a 17-6 lead, where both tries illustrated their ability to strike from long range.

They added another three in the second half – again none of them from close range. In fact Connacht’s pick and jam game in the last five metres of the field looked weak enough. How refreshing though to see tries scored from distance. “I said before there were things we needed to work on and that was one of them (short range),” said Friend.

“We’ve a good pack of forwards and once we get more confidence in that pack we’ll convert a lot more of those opportunities. I feel like we’ve built a really decent squad there now. Our target it to get a home quarter-final. I reckon the next block is going to be important.”

This was yet another one of those games where the refereeing team were front and centre. By the end of the first half we had two penalties reversed for messing/aggressive messing and two yellow cards, one for each side. It didn’t knock a feather out of Connacht however.

The third quarter surely was designated by Ulster as the hill they needed to climb quickly but instead it was the hill they died on. When we got to the hour mark with no change in the scoreboard picture Dan McFarland’s men were doomed. By then too it was clear the penalty trend was shifting in Connacht’s favour.

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The last quarter will haunt Ulster. They were lucky to have 15 men on the field for it after a no-arms tackle by Billy Burns, in his own 22, on Tom Daly. The Connacht centre hobbled off; Burns struggled on, having got what appeared to be a stinger. He might have been better punching his card out for having been intercepted for Mack Hansen’s first try in the first half – a very good read and catch by the Connacht wing – he got done again in the final quarter as well, a half intercept/half steal of a pass aimed for Ross Kane.

That was almost, but not quite, the final nail in the coffin. Three minutes earlier John Porch had finished the best try of the game. Connacht’s right-sided strike off a scrum was inch perfect and the wing had a bit to do – which he accomplished beautifully.

“I thought Connacht were good,” Dan McFarland said. “We couldn’t get the go-forward in attack we wanted. They did very well in the breakdown situation and made our attack blunt. The two intercepts came off the back of us forcing things.”

By the time Hansen got over for his second try the crowd were on their feet planning a big night out. If Connacht had lost this they could have drifted off, out of sight. They needed it more than unbeaten Ulster, and it showed. They will enjoy their break now rather that stewing on what might have been.

Scorers - Connacht: M Hansen 2 tries; N Murray, J Porch, D Kilgallen try each; J Carty pen, 4 cons; Ulster: B Roberts try; N Doak 2 pens.

Connacht: T O’Halloran (HIA 55, D Kilgallen 55); J Porch, S Arnold, T Daly (C Fitzgerald 57), M Hansen; J Carty (capt), K Marmion (C Blade 70); M Burke (J Duggan 55), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 55), F Bealham (J Aungier 57), N Murray, U Dillane (yc 37-47; O Dowling 55), E Masterson, P Boyle (J Butler 60), C Oliver.

Ulster: E McIlroy (B Moxham 67); R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, C Gilroy (M Lowry 24); B Burns, N Doak (D Shanahan 67); E O’Sullivan (A Warwick 52), R Herring (B Roberts 52), T O’Toole (R Kane 52), A O’Connor (yc 34-44), I Henderson (capt) (K Treadwell 56), M Rea, D McCann (G Jones 56), N Timoney.

Referee: A Brace (IRFU).


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