Connacht 36 Ulster 11
Connacht varnished their historic occasion in some style, an utterly compelling, inventive and increasingly dominant display yielding a bonus point which trimmed their deficit on Ulster from 14 points to nine.
In every sense, Connacht could feel entirely justified in their decision to move this match to the Aviva Stadium, for the 9,000 or so attendance more than tripled either of their previous two restricted attendances at the Sportsground. The lap of honour, and gratitude, was fully appreciated.
Their ambition and supremacy grew as the match wore on, particularly in a largely one-sided second period. Their launch plays were again a striking feature of the performance, and often the platform for sustained attacks. The lines of running were magnificent and two of the tries were beauties.
It was fitting also that their defence contributed significantly to three of their five tries for their fast line speed was another unrelenting aspect of their display. Ulster were all but consumed and becalmed, with even their renowned lineout maul restricted to a consolation score.
The Connacht backrow of Eoghan Masterson, Conor Oliver and Paul Boyle seemed to be everywhere, Jack Carty outplayed Billy Burns, Tom Daly made light of Bundee Aki's absence ('nuff said), Mack Hansen endeared himself some more to the Connacht supporters with a cheeky brace and a fit and healthy Tiernan O'Halloran has rediscovered his mojo.
Misleadingly, Ulster actually made the first inroads when David McCann chased a Nathan Doak box kick and thundered into Carty, forcing a spillage which was wrongly adjudged forward. The scrum led to a penalty almost in front of the posts but Iain Henderson opted for the corner, and an Ulster strength against a Connacht Achilles heel.
But, not contesting and timing their counter-drive perfectly, Connacht held up the maul and initially won a relieving penalty under their posts thanks to John Porch’s strength over the ball. But this was curiously reversed after the first spot of ‘afters’ and Doak opened the scoring.
Having conceded the game’s first three penalties, Connacht’s fans responded to their first after eight minutes with ironic cheers – their sense of injustice still raw after the events of last week. But that was also the cue for their first lineout loss.
Two of the first-half’s key moments centered around the decision making of the two outhalves. Seeing that the ball was too slow and he ran the risk of an intercept when taking the ball on the wrap, Carty changed course with a long superbly angled touch-finder which led to his side having their next territorial footing.
They turned this into hard currency too, generating quick ball with their resourcing of rucks and from a strong carry by Masterson, Carty went out the back to Sammy Arnold, and rather than do the same again the centre fed Boyle on a straight line, the latter freeing his hands to release Niall Murray for an athletic finish by the former Irish under-20 lock.
Again Ulster went to the corner and again they were held up before Doak made it 7-6 before another key moment. From a scrum inside their own half, Burns went through a strike move when taking Stuart McCloskey’s pull back and attempting a skip pass to a trio of runners on the outside, but Hansen leaped, gathered and pirouetted to race in from about 35 metres out.
O’Halloran then arrowed on to an inside pass by Arnold off turnover ball to launch another siege on the Ulster that led to a Carty penalty.
It might have been more after Alan O’Connor was binned for a needless shoulder charge into Boyle’s back which sparked another bout of shoving and throat-grabbing, but again Connacht couldn’t complete the lineout – Henderson picking it off.
Within minutes, referee Andrew Brace evened out the sides when seemingly a little trigger-happy in binning Ultan Dillane for going off his feet. The lock was trapped and it happened inside the Ulster 10-metre line.
However, Doak missed a straightish penalty from the 40-metre line – only his second in his first 15 kicks. So, despite losing three attacking line outs and the penalty count by 11-6, Connacht led 17-6 at the break.
They were quickly pounding the Ulster line in a prolonged, helter-skelter start to the second period before Boyle was held up over the line by McCloskey and Matty Rea, when perhaps he should have laid the ball back.
Carty was also wide with a 45-metre penalty before Connacht unveiled a couple of their launch moves off scrums. The second, Arnold steaming on to Daly’s short pass before Masterson made further inroads with a hard line off the recycle, led to another close-range siege but again the close-in hammering didn’t deliver.
Back they came when opting for a penalty to the corner, but the catch-and-drive was held up before Burns somehow escaped with a no-arms tackle on Daly for McCloskey to complete the steal. Worse still, Connacht lost Daly, who had been playing brilliantly, due to an ensuing leg injury.
Nontheless Masterson and Boyle held up Kieran Treadwell, who had replaced Henderson, for Boyle to win a turnover penalty and ensure the third quarter was played almost entirely in the Ulster half.
Cue another launch play from the Mossy Lawlor menu off a scrum outside the 22, ten metres from the left touchline. Jarrad Butler fed Kieran Marmion and Carty brought Hansen into the line off his wing to inject some pace into the move before Conor Fitzgerald straightened and timed his pass perfectly for Porch to scorch past Michael Lowry for a classic winger's finish in the corner.
The Fields echoed around the Aviva and, fittingly, it was Connacht fans singing. They were soon in raptures after replacement Diarmuid Kilgallen picked off another Burns pass practically out of Ross Kane’s grasp to steam clear from 40 metres and score under the posts.
The Ulster pack finally mauled over for Brad Roberts to claim the touchdown but Connacht remained dominant and continued with their repertoire of launch plays. One featured a no-look right-handed flick behind his back by Carty in front of the watching Eric Elwood, who perfected the skill under Warren Gatland in the late 90s, but he also hit the upright with an eminently kickable penalty.
Yet Connacht weren't fully sated or done. Twice they failed to translate penalties to the corner into tries, and had to scramble furiously to prevent Robert Baloucoune going the length of the pitch.
When Caolin Blade won the game’s final turnover everyone anticipated the ball being kicked dead. Instead, Hansen scooped up the ball and beat a couple of flailing tackles along the left touchline to break as clear as a bird. Carty even added the conversion.
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).