Ulster 21 Connacht 13
Ulster provided a fitting Kingspan Stadium farewell to Rory Best and Darren Cave as they secured a nervy win over Connacht to progress to the Guinness PRO14 semi-final against Glasgow.
It was a typically tight affair between the inter-provincial rivals but Ulster were the deserved winners having taken many lessons from their defeats to Connacht earlier in the season. Nick Timoney’s try, as well as two penalties from John Cooney, gifted the home side an 11-3 lead at half-time.
Connacht, however, ensured it was a battle until the end when Bundee Aki crossed for a try early in the second half to leave just one point between the sides. The two kickers traded penalties but a late try from Marcell Coetzee ensured that it is Ulster who are on the plane to Scotland in two week’s time.
Ulster dominated proceedings for the opening stages of the game and it took just four minutes for Cooney to get them on the scoreboard when Colby Fainga’a was deemed to be off his feet at the breakdown.
Connacht were slow to gain a foothold in the game and were guilty of simple mistakes throughout the first half. They were awarded a lineout at the halfway point and they chose to set up a maul that had been so effective in their earlier encounters. It was a move straight off the training field with Bundee Aki as first receiver, however, Luke Marshall read the play well and lined up Jack Carty as he was expecting the pass. The Ulster centre accidentally knocked on in the proceedings and Connacht retained possession. They were then awarded a penalty following a collapsed scrum, however, Carty failed to find touch.
Connacht proved that when in possession, they provided a major threat. Aki, Matt Healy and Fainga’a all made dangerous carries as the men from the west looked to up the tempo of the game. It took a clever tackle by Marcell Coetzee on Fainga’a to dislodge the ball and extinguish the threat.
Ulster deservedly extended their lead soon afterwards when Jordi Murphy capitalised on Carty’s mistake under a high ball to gather possession. Treadwell and Coetzee brilliantly offloaded to Timoney on the wing and he dodged the rushing tackle of Kieran Marmion to score their first try after 15 minutes, however, Cooney could not add the conversion.
The visitors worked their way back into the game through brilliant footwork from O’Halloran to set up another attack and they quickly moved the ball across the field to Healy who slipped. Ulster were again handed back the advantage when Connacht were pinged for not releasing. Connacht proved their ability to capitalise on an Ulster mistake when Rory Best’s wayward throw to Iain Henderson allowed them to retain possession.
Ulster were penalised for being offside and Carty sent play right up to their five-metre line. Dave Heffernan almost burst over the line following the lineout but a scrambling Ulster defence managed to fill the space. Connacht went through the phases but they were slowly forced backwards by Ulster. After 14 phases, the inspired Murphy managed to turn over possession.
Eventually, Healy showed his incredible pace to dodge past Baloucoune and Lowry and Ulster were penalised in the following phase, allowing Carty to knock over Connacht’s first points after 30 minutes.
Connacht dominated the scrum in the sides’ earlier meeting in Galway this season but Ross Kane bested Denis Buckley in Belfast today and he forced another penalty in the scrum. Gavin Thornbury, however, managed to steal the lineout from Ulster to prevent their impending attack.
Ulster finished the half strongly despite Marshall selling a beautiful dummy to make a searing break. Connacht managed to force their hosts back to the halfway line but Ulster were persistent. Timoney showed great handling to retain possession and, eventually, the play was halted when Aki was penalised for a high tackle on Billy Burns. Much to the frustration of the home crowd, the referee deemed that a penalty was sufficient as Burns appeared to be falling. Cooney was again accurate with his kick to give Ulster an eight-point lead at the break.
Ulster began the second half on the attack with big carries by Stuart McCloskey, Burns and Timoney, however, it was halted when Murphy made a rare mistake and knocked the ball on. The home side were eventually penalised for collapsing a maul but Carty was unable to punish them from the tee.
Ulster looked set for another try when Cooney made a searing break after 50 minutes from the back of a maul but he slipped in an almost identical position to Healy in the first half. Carty brilliantly intercepted the play and booted the ball deep inside the Ulster half. McCloskey made another break for Ulster phases later, Connacht made another intercept, this time through Fainga’a who offloaded to the supporting Aki and he avoided the challenge of Baloucoune to rush over the line. Carty slotted over the conversion to narrow the gap to just one point.
Ulster immediately went on the attack from the restart but Connacht managed to turnover possession through substitute Shane Delahunt. Just as the agitated Kingspan crowd found their voice, Ulster were awarded a penalty for an offside and Cooney restored some breathing space.
With 67 minutes on the clock and against the run of play, Carty reduced the gap once again after the referee deemed that Coetzee challenged for the ball illegally. The crowd then rose to their feet as Rory Best was substituted on his final appearance in Belfast with Rob Herring taking to the pitch.
His side were given an opportunity to seal the win on 75 minutes when they battered the Connacht try line. The green defence proved strong phase after phase but Ulster showed disciplined patience. Timoney and Henderson were among the major ball carriers as they moved the ball from one side of the pitch to the other. After 24 phases, Coetzee was the deserving figure to touch down the ball and Burns’ conversion booked their place in the last four of the PRO14.
Ulster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Best (captain), R Kane, I Henderson, K Treadwell, N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, T O’Toole, A O’Connor, S Reidy, D Shanahan, D Cave, A Kernohan.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Stephen Fitzgerald, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury, Eoin McKeon, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (Capt).
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, Conor Carey, Eoghan Masterson, Paul Boyle, Caolin Blade, Tom Daly, Darragh Leader.