When you’re getting the use of the hall free of charge you don’t have to worry too much about the crowd that turns up. So when it was clear the shift to the Aviva was not going to give Connacht the bumper crowd they had hoped for at least they were not sweating bullets over the accounts.
s for their battle to get their heads above water in the league within a league – the interpro dance-off for an automatic place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup – that worked out very nicely. And the vast majority of the 9,875 crowd went home happy.
It’s unlikely Andy Friend budgeted for a bonus point win, with five tries, but he will consider it appropriate given their trials and tribulations of late. They were far sharper than their opponents, especially when they got some space to play in the second half. It was a done deal well before the finish. Naturally enough they had the man of the match as well, in flanker Conor Oliver.
This was yet another one of those games where the refereeing team were front and centre. By the end of the first half – with Connacht taking a 17-6 lead to the changing room – we had two penalties reversed for messing/aggressive messing and two yellow cards.
The first, for Alan O’Connor was in the latter category after referee Andrew Brace was penalising Dave Heffernan for a dangerous lift of Ian Henderson. The second came a few minutes later and evened the teams up at 14 men each with Ultan Dillane binned for not rolling away. Brace had had it by then. He gave 17 penalties in that first period – 11 of them against Connacht.
To be pinged to that extent and still have a decent lead was good going. Two tries were the difference, and had they been more patient – or had a better plan for pick and jam inside the last five metres of the field – they would have had three.
The first, from Niall Murray, was testament to his athleticism and turned over a 3-0 lead set by Nathan Doak. It was a cracking finish by the big second row after a bust and offload by Paul Boyle. The second was a sickener for Ulster – and Billy Burns in particular. He was trying to connect to the wide outside as Ulster attacked from deep only for Mack Hansen to make a good read and fine intercept. He just about beat the posse home.
That came on 25 minutes and put Connacht 14-6 clear, improved to 17-6 three minutes later by Carty after a great turnover did the damage. On the restart however they conceded a penalty almost immediately. It was a repeat of what happened after the Murray touchdown. Hard to build momentum with that kind of looseness and it kept a poor Ulster performance from separating them from the game altogether.
The intriguing bit was if their bench could save them. By the time that action started the scores hadn’t changed but the penalty trend certainly had. Brace came down hard on Ulster but Connacht’s lineout was so unreliable that too kept Ulster in the game.
Which is not to say they had no luck. Keeping Burns on the field after a no-arms tackle – in his own 22 – on Tom Daly was a mystery. Daly hobbled off and Connacht were denied what would have been a handy three points, at the least.
It could have put a screw in their heads, but they got past it without issue. Better still they conjured up the try of the game with a great finish from John Porch. Connacht’s right-sided strike off a scrum was inch perfect and the wing had a bit to do – which he accomplished beautifully.
When replacement Diarmuid Kilgallen followed up with soon after – a half intercept half steal of a Burns pass aimed for Ross Kane – Connacht had their extras sorted with 15 minutes left.
Ulster managed to change the look on the scoreboard with a Brad Roberts try from a maul but it won’t have changed their mood. For good measure Connacht altered it again with a fifth try – a second for Hansen – again from distance.
Connacht: T O’Halloran (HIA 55, D Kilgallen 55); J Porch, S Arnold, T Daly (C Fitzgerald 57), M Hansen; J Carty (capt), K Marmion (C Blade 70); M Burke (J Duggan 55), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 55), F Bealham (J Aungier 57), N Murray, U Dillane (yc 37-47; O Dowling 55), E Masterson, P Boyle (J Butler 60), C Oliver
Ulster: E McIlroy (B Moxham 67); R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, C Gilroy (M Lowry 24); B Burns, N Doak (D Shanahan 67); E O’Sullivan (A Warwick 52), R Herring (B Roberts 52), T O’Toole (R Kane 52), A O’Connor (yc 34-44), I Henderson (capt)(K Treadwell 56), M Rea, D McCann (G Jones 56, N Timoney
Referee: A Brace (IRFU)
Connacht 36: (M Hansen 2 tries; N Murray, J Porch, D Kilgallen try each; J Carty pen, 4 cons)
Ulster 11: (B Roberts try; N Doak 2 pens)