Connacht’s long wait for a win in Belfast continues
Ulster win a scrappy affair to extend home run over western province
Connacht’s Cian Kelleher is tackled by Luke Marshall. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ulster 16 Connacht 8
Connacht’s wait for a win in Belfast will extend into a 58th year. A surprisingly thunderous roar greeted the countdown to John Cooney kicking the ball dead as Ulster denied Connacht a bonus point, which reflected the mood after last week’s Zebre defeat and what a relatively undistinguished struggle this was.
Admittedly, a heavy first-half shower made the ball very slippery and that contributed to the high error count. Amid this there were occasional passages of exciting rugby, the best of which provided the pivotal and possible 14-point swing which effectively decided the outcome through Jacob Stockdale combining with Charles Piatau nearing the hour mark. They had looked the men most likely.
Ulster were the more effective side when they got Iain Henderson, Jean Deysel, Stuart McCloskey and co running hard and straight, and working in their offloading game, although they were also far too wasteful.
Connacht weren’t helped by injury enforced reshuffles, but there were still way too many handling errors and mistakes. Jarrad Butler and Tom Farrell caught the eye, but the greasy pill, combined with Ulster’s superior defensive line speed and better work in the collisions, compelled Connacht to kick much more often than is their wont, as the home side effectively shut down Bundee Aki.
Indeed, Connacht had the early ‘ins’ into the game, but thrice Jack Carty opted to kick, while two attacks were stymied by the speed and defensive reads of Tommy Bowe and Luke Marshall. Connacht weren’t helped by losing Tiernan O’Halloran to what looked like a hamstring injury early on, with Steve Crosbie, whose rugby travels have taken him to Connacht vis Leinster, Munster and New Zealand, becoming a makeshift fullback.
By contrast, Ulster had more ballast in their carries, notably from McCloskey up the middle, and more cutting edge, especially with Stockdale, although he and Ulster left a try behind when his pass inside missed Cooney after he skinned Cian Kelleher. Further fumbles by Marshall and Christian Lealifano didn’t help, albeit the latter may have been tackled a tad early by Aki.
Connacht were winning scrum penalties, but Kieran Treadwell picked off an attacking throw to the tail. Carty was still being obliged to kick the ball, which led to his former half-back partner Cooney opening the scoring with a well-struck 40 metre penalty after Tom McCartney was adjudged to have played the ball out of the tackle.
A couple of poor passes by Ultan Dillane and Eoin McKeon typified Connacht’s early difficulties. But a third scrum penalty led to another attacking lineout, whereupon they clicked into gear and scored a peach of a try. Aki was the catalyst, freeing his hands to offload to Farrell before John Muldoon carried well infield. After Quinn Roux trucked it up, Aki went in to scrumhalf and good hands by Carty, Butler, Crosbie, Matt Healy and Eoin McKeon released Kelleher.
Although Butler was collared short of the line from the winger’s inside pass, McCartney picked and barrelled through Stockdale and Piatau to score. Carty screwed the conversion wide, but Connacht saw out the half in Ulster territory.
The crowd, confined mostly to howling for decisions, were too stunned to even boo.
Ulster began the second half clearly with more than a flea in their ear, and Henderson took a late line and galloped upfield after a lovely little disguised pass from Lealifano. This led to Cooney kicking them in front.
The game kicked into life as first Kelleher broke and offloaded to McKeon, then Ulster countered and Piatau kicked upfield, before Healy countered briefly and Henderson was penalised for not rolling away. As the crowd howled again for a late tackle on Piatau by Crosbie, Carty ignored the cacophony and restored Connacht’s lead.
That at least got the home dander up, and borderline penalties against Farrell and Muldoon led to Cooney making it 9-8. When Connacht then broke out from deep by using the width of the pitch for Crosbie to release Healy, rather than looking for support inside, the winger opted to chip Piatau, but executed poorly, and instead the fullback countered and exchanged passes with Stockdale for the latter to score under the posts as Connacht’s defence went AWOL.
Carty was also injured in tackling Piatau, and the resulting reshuffle saw Kelleher go to fullback, Farrell to wing, Eoin Griffin to inside centre and Crosbie to outhalf.
Connacht, though still regularly being driven back in contact, gamely kept running and coming at Ulster; Crosbie breaking out from one clever blindside lineout move. Twice they elected to go to the corner when they might have taken the kick for a bonus point, before Dave Heffernan failed to find Healy with the final pass. They deserved something, but ultimately, as so often the case here, left with nothing.
Scoring sequence: 29 mins Cooney pen 3-0; 36 mins McCartney try 3-5; (half-time 3-5); 45 mins Cooney pen 6-5; 50 mins Cooney pen 6-8; 54 mins Cooney pen 9-8; 57 mins Stockdale try, Cooney con 16-8.
ULSTER: C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst; A O’Connor, K Treadwell; I Henderson, C Henry (capt), J Deysel. Replacements: R Diack for O’Connor (50 mins), S Reidy for Henry (55 mins), L Ludik for Bowe (60 mins), R Ah You for Herbst (68 mins), J Andrew for Herring (76 mins). Not used: A Warwick, P Marshall, P Nelson. Sinbinned: Deysel (77 mins).
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; C Kelleher, B Aki, T Farrell, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, Q Roux; E McKeon, J Butler, J Muldoon (capt). Replacements: S Crosbie for O’Halloran (11 mins), D Heffernan for McCartney (50 mins), E Griffin for Carty (58 mins), J Cannon for Roux (60 mins), E Masterson for Muldoon (63 mins), D Coulson, for Buckley (66 mins), C Carey for Bealham, Muldoon for McKeon (70 mins), C Blade for Marmion (72 mins).
Referee: A Brace (Ireland).