Wednesday 13 December 2017

Ulster win comes at cost


The prospect of five defeats in a row before facing Clermont in Europe next weekend would have cost Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin some sleep these last few nights. His team kept that stat at four, thanks to this slog against Connacht in front of a decent crowd at Ravenhill, but it's doubtful he will have got quality shut-eye after this, especially with the sight of captain Johann Muller leaving at the final whistle with his arm heavily strapped.

The PRO 12 points will come in handy given their struggles of late -- the bonus was on offer but they couldn't nail it -- but this was as much about shaping up for the Heineken Cup. And Ulster were poor. Connacht didn't expect to win, but nor did they bargain on leaving with both Michael Swift and Rodney Ah You as casualties. Eric Elwood played down both afterwards. As well as Muller, Ulster lost Stephen Ferris with an ankle injury and Tom Court with a damaged knee. All in all, it looked a costly way for Ulster to win, and even if they get great news on the injury front they will need a dramatic turnaround in form in order to cope with Clermont, who lost heavily in Paris yesterday to Stade Francais.

For a while, in what was a poor game, it looked like we might have a running battle between Muller and opposite number Mike McCarthy. Rather than escalate, however, the game settled into a dull enough trend of Connacht scrambling to get out of their own half on their own terms -- their kicking game was mixed -- and then the loss of Swift robbed them of their most experienced forward, and brought David Gannon onto the field about 40 minutes earlier than planned. Too much was going wrong for them.

Towards the end of the first half, you could sense the unrest in the home crowd at the inability of their team to turn opportunities into points. If their approach wasn't letting them down, then it was their handling in the wide channels. The first part involved getting ball that was quick enough. This led to the crowd getting onto Paul Marshall. Seemingly, they were unhappy with the speed of his delivery, yet the difference between his service of decent ball and bad ball was marked -- which, of course, was lost on the more vocal punters.

Marshall will be their No 9 for the opening rounds of Europe while Ruan Pienaar rehabs his hamstring, so it will be interesting to see how they react to him during that spell. In any case, he featured large in the move that broke the deadlock with two minutes of the half remaining, and hurt Connacht badly when the teams were 3-3 after Ian Humphreys and Miah Nikora had swapped penalties. It was a decoy run by Andrew Trimble that gave cover to Adam Gilroy to steam into the space and take an inside pass from Humphreys to score.

Aware of the need to start the new half in the right mode they drove hard and well in the opening two minutes for Court to touch down. That pretty much sorted the result, but it wasn't until the last play of the game that Humphreys added their third try.

Scorers -- Ulster: I Humphreys try, pen 2 cons; T Court, C Gilroy tries. Connacht: M Nikora pen

Ulster: S Danielli; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys (N O'Connor 63), P Marshall (I Porter 58); T Court (A Macklin 65), R Best, J Afoa (P McAllister 59), J Muller (capt), D Tuohy (L Stevenson 68), S Ferris (R Diack 58), P Wannenberg, C Henry

Connacht: T O'Halloran; F Vainikolo, G Duffy (capt), D McSharry, B Tuohy; M Nikora, P O'Donohoe (F Murphy 65); B Wilkinson (R Loughney 53), A Flavin (E Reynacke 53), R Ah You (D Rogers 48), M Swift (D Gannon 22), M McCarthy, TJ Anderson, G Naoupu, E Grace (J Muldoon 55)

Referee: J Lacey (IRFU)

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