Connacht deliver mighty performance to end 58-year Belfast hoodoo
Andy Friend’s side composed on the road as battle-scarred Ulster lose a second interpro
Bundee Aki races clear to score Connacht’s third try in Belfast. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Ulster 15 Connacht 22
It finally happened. Connacht did what many felt was beyond them by finally ending the 58-year hoodoo of not winning in Belfast and deservedly so too.
As the Fields of Athenry broke out at a stunned Kingspan with the game at last secured thanks to Bundee Aki’s 72nd minute interception try, the westerners had put to bed that awful stat - no wins since November 1960 - and given new coach Andy Friend something special to build on.
It was dramatic, if helter-skelter, stuff from the off with Ulster losing Mattie Rea to a red card at the start of the second half for up-ending Cian Kelleher. The hosts were reduced to 13 men at the that point as Marcell Coetzee had been binned for a high tackle at the end of the opening 40 minutes.
Even though Connacht failed to score when Ulster had two men missing, and looked to be scarcely believing that the game was there for them, they eventually ground the northerners down with Carty’s 66th minute penalty and then Aki’s glorious run-in sealing a historic deal.
Connacht’s scrum was immense in the game and their forwards created this result with the performances of Sean O’Brien and Ultan Dillane, as well as their frontrow, just too much for Ulster.
Even more significantly, Connacht pulled this off after losing three starting backs early in the game to consign Ulster to further misery after last weekend’s Thomond Park debacle and put Dan McFarland’s tenure under considerable strain.
Ulster, with Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale back for the first time, were brave in adversity, but never really looked on the money though they did have two first half scores ruled out by Andrew Brace for having players in front of the ball.
Still, they had a try on five minutes when Matt Healy steamed through to provide Tiernan O’Halloran and though Best complained to referee Andrew Brace about what appeared to be an obstruction on Stuart McCloskey by Farrell, the score was allowed to stand after referring it upstairs.
Carty added a magnificent touchline conversion but the sight of O’Halloran limping off meant Connacht had lost two of their starting side in five minutes.
It didn’t deter them though and even though Stockdale appeared to have pulled off a perfect jackal on Carty, Coetzee’s high tackle earlier in the attack gave Connacht a penalty. Instead of going for the corner, they opted for the scrum doubtless encouraged by an earlier set-piece where they had shunted Ulster backwards.
It worked too as several penalties, a free-kick and multiple re-sets later, Brace ran under the posts to award a penalty try with seven points going to the visitors.
Ulster needed a response and quickly and they got it on 23 minutes, though Connacht presented them with the opportunity after Bundee Aki had ripped the ball clear from Coetzee only for the westerners to then try and run out from their own line only to lose possession.
With nothing on from the turnover, Billy Burns launched a speculative cross-kick in Stockdale’s general direction and though Caolin Blade seemed to have it covered he lost the ball allowing the Ireland winger to pounce and be given the score.
Cooney missed the difficult two points, and then Ulster were furious when two scores were ruled out, the first for Kernohan and the other for Peter Nelson for having players in front of the ball.
But the half ended as it had started for the hosts - though the loss of Farrell to injury didn’t look great for the westerners. Sean O’Brien stole a lineout near the Connacht line and then Coetzee was yellow-carded for a high tackle.
The drama continued from the restart, as Rea then took Cian Kelleher out with the Connacht man being taken through the horizontal and though the visiting player stayed on, the Ulster flanker was shown red, reducing the home side to 13 men just 10 seconds into the new half.
Cooney then missed a long range penalty on 50 minutes just as Coetzee re-joined the action to give Ulster 14 men, but he nailed his next chance three minutes later when Connacht were done for not releasing.
Connacht got over their wobbles by winning a penalty at a scrum and Carty went for the posts and nailed his 66th minute chance.
With Ulster chasing the game, it fell to Aki to intercept Johnny McPhillips’ attempted pass to Stockdale and he raced in with eight minutes remaining.
Carty missed the extras but Connacht were there, not caring that Timoney’s 79th minute score and Cooney’s conversion rescued a losing bonus point.
Scoring sequence: 5mins O’Halloran try 0-5, Carty con 0-7, 20mins pen try 0-14, 24mins Stockdale try 5-14, h-t 5-14, 52mins Cooney pen 8-14, 67mins Carty pen 8-17, 72mins Aki try 8-22, 79mins Timoney try 13-22, Cooney con 15-22
Ulster scorers: J Stockdale, N Timoney cons: J Cooney 2 pens: J Cooney
Connacht scorers: T O’Halloran, pen try, B Aki cons: J Carty pens: J Carty
Ulster: P Nelson, A Kernohan, A Curtis, S McCloskey, J Stockdale, B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Best (capt), T O’Toole, A O’Connor, I Henderson, M Rea, N Timoney, M Coetzee. Replacements: R Kane for O’Toole half-time, E O’Sullivan for Warwick 55mns, A McBurney for Best, S Reidy for Coetzee and J McPhillips for Burns all 65mns, J Hume for Curtis and K Treadwell for O’Connor both 66mins D Shanahan not used.
Yellow card: Coetzee 40mins
Red card: M Rea 40mins 10secs
Connacht: T O’Halloran, N Adeolokun, M Healy, T Farrell, B Aki, J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, Q Roux, S O’Brien, J Butler (capt), P Doyle. Replacements: C Blade for Marmion 1min, C Kelleher for O’Halloran 5mins, K Godwin for Farrell 37mins, S Delahunt for Buckley 53mins, P McCabe for McCartney and C Carey for Bealham both 59mins, J Cannon for Roux and C Fainga’a for O’Brien both 70mins
Referee: A Brace (IRFU)