Tuesday 20 August 2019

Coetzee leads Ulster charge in perfect send-off for Best

Ulster 21 Connacht 13

Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Connacht’s Jack Carty during last night’s PRO14 quarter-final at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran
Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Connacht’s Jack Carty during last night’s PRO14 quarter-final at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

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 Marcell Coetzee with two minutes left. True, they had a one-point lead when the man of the match struck, but while Connacht had never been ahead at any point you would never have doubted their ability to squeeze in front before the bell.

Ulster captain Rory Best is applauded off by his team-mates. Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster captain Rory Best is applauded off by his team-mates. Photo: Sportsfile

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 Pro14 semi-final. It's a significant improvement on a few fronts from this time last year.

For Connacht as well. But their season is done. They needed to be better, and on another day might have been.

So Rory Best got 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, and at the breakdown, supported well by Kieran Treadwell who had a fine game, and John Cooney, who opened Ulster's account with a penalty after good pressure in the opening minutes. Ulster rely on him massively, especially given that Billy Burns is not who they need to deliver at 10.

Ulster's John Cooney kicks a penalty. Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster's John Cooney kicks a penalty. Photo: Sportsfile

It was Coetzee and Treadwell, though, who got them out of the blocks in the first half. 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 the appeal of his routine depends on getting his lines right.

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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 referee Andrew Brace on a tackle by Bundee Aki on Burns which didn't involve a wrap. Neither did it involve much to be concerned about, but 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 too 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.

It had the feeling of a lost cause about it. Then Colby Fainga'a - he really is a fine player - struck. He did well to intercept a pass from Burns around halfway and better again to control the overhead pass to the supporting Bundee Aki.

The Ulster fans weren't best pleased at seeing their team's lead cut to a point, or indeed that it was Aki who scored it.

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. And it's impressive.

Scorers - Ulster: Timoney, Coetzee tries; Cooney 3 pens; Burns con. Connacht: Aki try; Carty 2 pens, con.

Ulster: 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)

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