Connacht’s fire and fury ignites their season as Ulster brushed aside with ease

Head coach Andy Friend calls Aviva Stadium experiment a success after big bonus-point win

Connacht’s Mack Hansen with fans after the win over Ulster in the United Rugby Championship match at the  Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Mack Hansen with fans after the win over Ulster in the United Rugby Championship match at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Connacht 36 Ulster 11

To put the scale of this result in context, this was Connacht’s second biggest win over Ulster in the history of the fixture and such was their supremacy it ought really have eclipsed the 44-16 victory at the Sportsground in December 2017.

In truth, Connacht were already at the point of no return this season if they wanted to stay in the mix for Champions Cup qualification next season. They could also channel the confidence generated by their performance against Munster previously and the anger over the nature of that defeat.

That they did, and how.

In accumulating four bonus-point wins from a favourable fixture list, Ulster hadn’t faced anything like the fire and fury Connacht brought to this derby.

The win was founded on thrice repelling Ulster going to the corner as the latter went to a potent strength against what had been a Connacht Achilles heel. Connacht never contested Rob Herring’s world-class throw and timed their counter-drive to perfection, before taking three throws after Bradley Roberts was introduced.

It was also fitting that two of Connacht’s tries came from their aggressive, out-in defensive line speed and despite losing Andrew Brace’s penalty count 16-12 perhaps the most telling stat was their seven clean line breaks to Ulster’s two.

By way of example, the first try was a nine-phase attack off a John Porch counterattack which finished with the outstanding Paul Boyle straightening on to Sammy Arnold’s short pass and freeing his hands in the tackle for Niall Murray to complete an athletic finish from the 22.

Connacht again unveiled an array of launch plays from Mossie Lawlor’s menu, none better than for Porch’s try just past the hour which ended the contest.

Ulster will lament losing their shape, not least in Ethan McIlroy taking himself out of the game, but the execution by the 8-9-10 off a scrum, Mack Hansen coming across his wing, the timing of Conor Fitzgerald’s and Porch’s acceleration for a classic winger’s finish was superb.

Connacht’s John Porch scores a try during the United Rugby Championship match against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht’s John Porch scores a try during the United Rugby Championship match against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The pressure to win would also have been compounded by the decision to move the game to the Aviva, not that it showed.

“We actually didn’t talk about it mate and had we talked about it I think it probably would have heaped more pressure,” said head coach Andy Friend. “I think we all probably knew, just as a footy team, that we needed to have a performance but I’m sure most of us were acutely aware that for the organisation it was a pretty important one.

“What we certainly didn’t talk about was to lump that pressure on the players as well, it would have been unfair. I can sit here now and look at ourselves and say it was a pretty good decision to come up here.

“The boys are saying it felt like a full house, with a lot of really proud Connacht supporters. There’s always going to be disappointment with people, that’s unavoidable in life unfortunately but I think we were justified now in our decision to come here. It’s a one-off and we’re very keen to get back to the Sportsground and play in front of our fans there.”

Friend confirmed that Bundee Aki, who missed this game after taking a bang on his knee, should be fit to train with Ireland this week.

In his absence, and in front of Andy Farrell, Connacht were left with only two members of Ireland’s 38-man squad whereas Ulster started with all seven of theirs.

The respective outhalves, both of whom missed the Ireland cut, had contrasting days. Jack Carty led his side shrewdly with a cleverly varied game, the only blemish being three missed kicks out of eight, while Billy Burns and the Ulster attack were so engulfed by Connacht’s ferocity in both line speed and in contact that he coughed up two intercept tries.

“I was disappointed for a few blokes but at the end of the day everyone has different opinions,” said Friend when asked about Carty’s ongoing exclusion from Irish squads.

“What I was really pleased about and proud of was the way some of those fellas rocked up there today and put out a performance that no doubt has the Irish selectors continuing to look at. That’s all you can ever do, you just put out your best performance.

“I thought Jack did pretty well today. I think he is really growing into the captaincy, to be honest with you. He seems to like that. He’s taking control as a ‘10’ and as the skipper. I was really proud of his performance.

“He is a guy who can just find space wherever it is, whether it’s us running or his kicking game,” said the Irish qualified Australian Mack Hansen, who further endeared himself to an enlarged Connacht crowd with a cheeky brace.

“I was lucky to get that to be honest,” he said when intercepting Burns’s pass. “If he chucks it over my head I guess we’d be talking the other way but I made a read. Today I did feel like I did back myself a bit more.”

Hansen finished the game with a flourish, when scampering clear along an unguarded blindside when most would have kicked the ball dead after Caolin Blade’s turnover.

“I saw a bit of space and I was hungry for another meat pie. I was just lucky that the Pilfer King got on the ball and was able to get it to me.”

Not a bad introduction to the Aviva.

“Aw mate, it was unreal. It was a really cool experience, even the changing rooms, and then once you get out on the field it was just a really cool experience. It honestly did feel like a full house.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 5 mins: Doak pen 0-3; 12: Murray try, Carty con 7-3; 17: Doak pen 7-6; 25: Hansen try, Carty con 14-6; 28: Carty pen 17-6; (half-time 17-6); 62: Porch try 22-6; 65: Diarmuid Kilgallen try, Carty con 29-6; 68: Roberts try 29-11; 82: Hansen try, Carty con 36-11.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; John Porch, Sammy Arnold, Tom Daly, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Kieran Marmion; Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Niall Murray, Ultan Dillane; Eoghan Masterson, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle.

Replacements: Shane Delahunt for Heffernan, Jordan Duggan for Burke, Oisín Dowling for Dillane, Diarmuid Kilgallen for O’Halloran (all 55 mins), Jack Aungier for Bealham (57), Conor Fitzgerald for Daly (58), Jarrad Butler for Boyle (59), Caolin Blade for Marmion (70.

Sin-binned: Dillane (36-46 mins).

ULSTER: Ethan McIlroy; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole; Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (capt); Matty Rea, Nick Timoney, David McCann.

Replacements: Mike Lowry for Gilroy (24 mins), Brad Roberts for Herring, Andrew Warwick for O’Sullivan, Ross Kane for O’Toole (all 51), Kieran Treadwell for Henderson, Gregg Jones for McCann (both 55), David Shanahan for Doak, Ben Moxham for McIlroy (both 66).

Sinbinned: A O’Connor (33-43 mins).

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU).

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