Ruthless Ulster make Connacht pay for missed opportunities
Ulster 35 Connacht 3
Ulster did what they needed to do in winning their first Irish derby of the season, and their last game of 2019, by seeing off Connacht and scoring five tries to collect maximum points at a sold-out Kingspan.
The westerners were put to the sword in the second half thanks to tries from the dangerous Robert Baloucoune, Rob Herring – who had just returned from the bin – and Nick Timoney. Alan O’Connor and Billy Burns crossed the Connacht line in the first half.
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All the scores were converted, John Cooney kicking four and Bill Johnston slotting the effort after Timoney’s 76th-minute try.
It meant that Ulster closed the gap to seven points on Conference A leaders Leinster, though they play today at Munster.
It was a tricky opening half for Dan McFarland’s men, who led 14-3 thanks to tries from O’Connor and Burns, though only some last-ditch defending and Connacht’s failure to take two clear opportunities kept Andy Friend’s side to just three points.
Ulster also finished the half without skipper Herring, who was yellow-carded, and they lost Marcell Coetzee and Louis Ludik to injury.
Going into the game, Ulster had already made it clear that winning their first interprovincial of the season was the desired outcome after last week’s expected defeat to Leinster and November’s loss at Munster.
A Conor Fitzgerald penalty opened the scoring and it seemed a poor return following a period of Connacht pressure. Ulster responded eight minutes later.
This time a penalty against Caolin Blade was kicked to the corner and though Joe Maksymiw beat Kieran Treadwell to the ball when Herring threw long, O’Connor pounced and was given the score. Cooney’s conversion put Ulster 7-3 up.
Just after the 20th minute they had their second try. Former Ulster prop Paddy McAllister smashed into Coetzee and ended his game with what looked to be a no-arms tackle.
The ball was kept alive and found its way to Baloucoune who made ground and passed inside to Sean Reidy. The flanker threw an over-the-top pass to Burns, who somehow beat the cover to claim the try.
Cooney’s conversion made it 14-3 just as Ludik limped off to be replaced by Craig Gilroy.
Connacht gathered themselves for a strong finish to the half, which ultimately again proved fruitless.
Four minutes in to the second half and Ulster had their third try when Addison’s half-break enabled Cooney to feed Timoney, whose swift pass to Baloucoune saw the winger surge over. Cooney’s conversion made it 21-3 just before Herring returned.
It looked to drain what life there was left in Connacht and it was no surprise that the bonus-point score soon followed, with Herring getting it after a penalty to the corner allowed him drive off the maul.
Connacht replacement hooker Shane Delahunt was sin-binned with less than 20 minutes to go and though Ulster failed to score while the visitors had 14 on the field, Timoney crossed with four minutes to go.
Ulster – W Addison; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik (C Gilroy 27) (A McBurney 36-46); B Burns (B Johnston 61), J Cooney (D Shanahan 69); J McGrath (K McCall 50), R Herring (capt) (A McBurney 64), M Moore (T O’Toole 50); A O’Connor, K Treadwell (D O’Connor 59); M Rea, S Reidy, M Coetzee (N Timoney 22).
Connacht – T O’Halloran (D Horwitz 63), J Porch, T Daly, P Robb (S Fitzgerald 38), K Godwin, C Fitzgerald, C Blade (capt) (S Kerins 47); P McAllister (D Buckley 28), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 51), F Bealham (D Robertson-McCoy 28), U Dillane (N Murray 63), J Maksymiw, E McKeon (E Masterson 45), P Boyle, R Copeland (D Heffernan 64-74).
Ref – S Gallagher (IRFU).