Ulster do enough to stay top
PRO 12 Ulster 25 Connacht 0:SO, ANOTHER win for Ulster and though maybe not quite as exhilarating as the performance they put in at Cardiff Blues last week, this was enough to keep them top of the pile, with a game in hand, as matters turn towards Europe next week with the visit of Castres.
All told, it was an efficient win which kept a hard-working but error-strewn Connacht pointless but the sight of try scorer and man-of-the-match Nick Williams being led from the field will be a worry for Mark Anscombe with the Heineken Cup coming next.
There were good hit-outs for Rory Best – on his first game back since New Zealand – and Stephen Ferris, while Paddy Wallace again showed his versatility filling in at outhalf after the again impressive Paddy Jackson was taken off. John Afoa was huge against a splintering Connacht scrum in the first half when most of the damage was done to their cause.
It was another emotional night for Ulster as they saluted the Spence tragedy with a minute’s silence on the side’s first home game since the three deaths and it was also a poignant moment for his former team-mate Willie Faloon on his first return to Ravenhill, which saw the former Ballynahinch player skipper Connacht.
It’s also been quite a week for Connacht, with Eric Elwood announcing his intention to step down ,so it would have been an appropriate time to undo that statistic which states Connacht have not won in Belfast since 1960. The way things started didn’t offer hope, with Ulster’s dominant scrum – Afoa with Best causing all sorts of issues for Brett Wilkinson – with four penalties being conceded – two plus a free kick coming at the set-piece – within the first 10 minutes.
The fourth penalty allowed Paddy Jackson to get Ulster moving – arriving when Wilkinson popped out of an Ulster scrum – and the game entered a period of stalemate with Connacht making more unforced errors – Mike McCarthy was one of the few westerners to put himself about – and Ulster nearly getting Tommy Bowe and then Andrew Trimble free. But just around the half hour, Ulster pulled clear. Ferris stole a lineout and after the busy Paul Marshall was held up over the line you just knew that Ulster would get something from their scrum.
Chris Henry drove over but referee George Clancy opted to bin Dave Gannon for pulling the maul down and from the next set-piece Nick Williams appeared to be over the line but again Clancy called for a reset. The inevitable followed and Clancy awarded the penalty try on 34 minutes with Jackson’s conversion making it 10-0. Connacht failed to get off the mark two minutes later when Dan Parks was wide with a long range effort after Ulster obstructed.
Connacht again fell victim to Clancy’s whistle and Michael Swift’s clash with Jared Payne led to a penalty being reversed against the home side in their 22. Ulster took the lineout and several drives later, Williams drove over and Jackson converted to give Ulster a 17-0 lead at the break.
Connacht spared Wilkinson any more punishment by bringing on Denis Buckley at the break and they finally got a decent line break when Robbie Henshaw brushed off Paddy Wallace but his pass to Fetu’u Vainikolo was forward.
Ulster took their next kickable penalty which Jackson converted to make it 20-0 at the hour mark after Connacht were offside. After that, the game became fractured as both sides emptied their benches and then out of nowhere Tommy Bowe won a 78th minute cross-kick from Wallace, now at outhalf, and substitute Luke Marshall skidded in. Wallace missed the drop-kicked conversion.
ULSTER: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (c), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements: R Herring for R Best (58 mins), M McComish for S Ferris, C Gilroy for A Trimble, L Stevenson for J Muller (all 67 mins), L Marshall for P Jackson, C Black for T Court (both 69 mins), M Heaney for P Marshall (72 mins), A Macklin for N Williams (75 mins).
CONNACHT: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; D Gannon, W Faloon (capt), G Naoupu. Replacements: Mata Fifita for McSharry (17-29 mins, blood), N White for R Loughney (35 mins), D Buckley for B Wilkinson (half-time), J Muldoon for Gannon (47 mins), J O’Connor for W Faloon, D Moore for K Marmion (both 56 mins), J Harris-Wright for A Flavin (61 mins), M Nikora for D Parks (66 mins), M Fifita for D McSharry (69 mins).
Yellow card: D Gannon 32 mins.
Referee: George Clancy(IRFU).