Rory Best exits the Kingspan on a high as Ulster triumph ensures final bow will take place on the road
Ulster 21 Connacht 13
After the drama of Thomond Park earlier in the day – mostly a poor game with a thrilling finish – Ulster fans fetched up to the Kingspan wondering if they too would be put through the wringer. And they were. Deliverance came with a try from the incomparable Marcel Coetzee with two minutes left. True, they had a one point lead when the man of the match struck, but Connacht always would have had the capacity to overturn that.
Unlike Limerick it was a better game for longer, and with a cracking finish. In bright sunshine we got some excellent rugby, and the home fans can book their spin over to Glasgow on Friday week for the Pro 14 semi-final against Glasgow. For Connacht the season is done. They needed to be better and on another day might have been.
So Rory Best go to finish his Ravenhill career on a positive note – which pleased the locals greatly. The usual suspects were delivering in spades for them: Coetzee on the carry, supported well by Kieran Treadwell who had a fine game, and John Cooney who opened Ulster’s account with penalty after good pressure in the opening minutes. They rely on him massively.
It was Coetzee and Treadwell though who got them out of the blocks. And it was a quality try, featuring first a lovely step and offload from the number eight and then Treadwell with something similar to put Nick Timoney away. The door had been opened initially by Tiernan O’Halloran spilling a ball in the air, and then wing Stephen Fitzgerald shot out of the line to try and nail man and ball. He missed. And Ulster were clinical in taking advantage with Timoney getting over wide out.
O’Halloran’s role was interesting because you were never sure if his intrusions were going to create a try scoring chance for his side or for the opposition. Certainly he is an entertainer, but its appeal depends on his lines getting the right effect.
By half time there wasn’t a whole lot in it with Ulster 11-3 in front. They were lucky enough to get a decision from ref Andrew Brace on a tackle by Bundee Aki on Billy Burns which didn’t involve a wrap. Neither did it involve much to be concerned about, but John Cooney – who had been off for a while earlier for a HIA – nailed the kick, the last act of the half.
In between we had seen Connacht getting a decent supply of ball, and spending good chunks of time in the Ulster 22 without looking like they were going to get what they wanted from the pressure. From their longest of those Jack Carty took three points with a penalty conceded by Treadwell for not rolling away. The outhalf looked like he wanted a bit more than three points.
That would have been on his mind early in the second half when a dropped maul gave him a longish shot on goal, except that this time any sort of score would have been welcome. Scoring first after the break would have been their top priority leaving the changing room. Carty pushed it wide, but two minutes later he was nudging another penalty to touch to get the maul platform set up again. This time Ulster defended better, and when Connacht cut back blind a few phases later their outhalf was turned over at the tackle by Best.
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It had the feeling of a lost cause about it. Then Colby Fainga’a struck. He did well to intercept a pass from Burns around halfway and better again to control the overhead pass to the supporting Aki. The Ulster fans weren’t best pleased at seeing their team’s lead cut to a point.
They cheered up a bit when Cooney knocked over a penalty on 62 minutes after Eoghan Masterson was done for not rolling away at a ruck in the Connacht 22. It was matched soon after by Carty at the other end. Back to a point between them, but to Ulster’s credit they made a down-payment on securing the win simply by playing the game out at the far end of the field. That allowed Coetzee do his thing.
Ullster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, L Marshall (D Cave 51-63), S McCLoskey, R Lyttle; B Burns, J Cooney (D Shanahan 22-34; 69); E O’Sullivan, R Best (capt)(R Herring 69), R Kane (T O’Toole 69), I Henderson, K Treadwell (A O’Connor 73), N Timoney (S Reidy 79), M Coetzee, J Murphy
Connacht: T O’Halloran; S Fitzgerald, T Farrell, B Aki (T Daly 63), M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion )C Blade 52); D Buckley (P McCabe 71), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 57), F Bealham (C Carey 52), U Dillane, G Thornbury (E Masterson 34), E McKeon, J Butler (capt), C Fainga’a (P Boyle 65)
Referee: A Brace (IRFU)