A significant win for Ulster, a sobering night for Connacht. The only Irish team without a win thus far emerged as the only Irish winners of the weekend. And having come into the game with confidence dented and at the foot of the table, Ulster’s win elevated them to the top half of an embryonic table.
With Treviso at home next Friday after their confidence-boosting win over Munster, followed by the high-flying, in-form trio of the Ospreys, Leicester and Montpellier – second, first and third in their respective leagues – Ulster needed this.
After fluffing hard-earned opportunities against Glasgow, Ulster will have derived particular comfort from the way they clinically executed two tries here to subdue an initially impressive Connacht and record their 14th win in the sides’ last 15 clashes.
When Dan Parks became the first player in the league's history to score 1,500 points with an 11th minute try which he also converted, it rewarded a purposeful start by the hosts. Recycling the ball quickly, hitting the gain line hard and looking to keep the ball alive, the crowd loved John Muldoon's pass between his legs to release the pacey Matt Healy. And against his old province, Willie Falloon set the ball rolling by availing of a non-existent fringe defence.
Ulster's response was somewhat ominous as they hit the gain line even harder and recycled the ball even more quickly. Ian Porter's laser pass and Paddy Jackson's distribution stretched the Connacht defence for the classy Jarred Payne to put Michael Allen over in the corner.
It seemed a near 5,500 crowd might be in for a cracker but ultimately this was something of a bloodless coup. Perhaps highlighting how one team is beginning the third season of a coaching regime and the other is just starting out under a new one, Ulster had a much better shape in attack and, even more so, in defence.
Even before they opened the scoring, Connacht had defended much more softly, especially on the outside, whereas Ulster’s line speed, particularly out wide, was much quicker and thus more effective in repeatedly forcing Connacht back on inside shoulders.
That Connacht lost their way before a spirited end-game could in part be attributed to the early loss of Jason Harris-Wright and, soon after the interval, of Falloon. Craig Clarke was also limited to the first 40 minutes on his competitive debut, and with the restored Chris Henry destroyer in chief, their presence was sorely missed at the breakdown.
Connacht were murdered in this area. They struggled to generate quick ball –and that was if they weren’t being turned over or pinged – and they were pinged a hell of a lot on their own and Ulster’s ball.
John Lacey’s interpretation at the breakdown became the dominant theme of the evening. The penalty count was 10-2 to Ulster, and 9-1 at the breakdown entering the final stages, until a flurry of late penalties saw it finish 10-6 (and 9-4 at the breakdown).
When a team is wreaking that kind of carnage at the breakdown, there really is only going to be one winner.
At the heart of Ulster's surge to the winning line were a couple of 21-year-olds. Secondrow Iain Henderson stood head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch with his typically forcefully carrying. He appears to have grown bigger again this season.
After an edgy first-half Jackson came through for the visitors to such an extent that their 13 unanswered points in the second half were scored by the young outhalf. Jackson launched Luke Marshall through a gap between Parks and Eoin Griffin, then took Payne's pass from the recycle to score. Jackson's conversion and an ensuing penalty put Ulster out of sight.
CONNACHT: G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White; M Swift, C Clarke; J Heenan, W Faloon, J Muldoon. Replacements: S Henry for Harris-Wright (12 mins), A Muldowney for Clarke (half-time), G Naopu for Falloon (46 mins), C Ronaldson for Parks (61 mins), D Poolman for Duffy (71 mins), P O'Donoghoe, for Marmion (73 mins), R Ah You for Wilkinson , R Loughney for White ((both 64 mins).
ULSTER: J Payne; D McIlwaine, D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen; P Jackson, I Porter; T Court, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller, I Henderson; R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements: R Lutton for Fitzpatrick (39 mins), P Marshall for Porter, C Gilroy for McIlwaine (both half-time), L Stefenson for Williams (56 mins), R Diack for Wilson (64 mins), K McCall, for Court (67 mins), J McKinney for Allen (71 mins), N Annett for Herring (73 mins).
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU)