Three tries in the first half set Connacht on their way to a memorable victory in the Sportsground as they bested their northern rivals in almost all facets of the game.
Eoghan Masterson, Bundee Aki and Tiernan O’Halloran all crossed in the first half which gave Connacht a 20-6 lead at the interval, all Ulster had to show was two penalties from the boot of John Cooney.
The western province’s win was based on a powerful setpiece, good territorial kicking and a dangerous backline – with just 30 minutes gone, Kieran Keane’s side has broken through the Ulster defence on five occasions and the margin of the lead could have been great at the interval.
A brace from Ultan Dillane and a try from Jarrad Butler in the second half secured a one-sided victory for the men from the west on a final scoreline of 44-16.
Connacht got off to the best possible start when Eoghan Masterson went over for a try after just three minutes on the clock. It all began when Jacob Stockdale sent a loose chip straight into the arms of the Connacht back-three. From that possession, the ball was moved to Matt Healy who used his scintillating pace to bring play deep within the Ulster 22. Kieran Keane’s side eventually secured a lineout just metres from the Ulster line and Masterson was able to dive over after a powerful lineout maul.
Just minutes later, Connacht got their second try of the game and the supporters at the Galway ground could barely hide their delight. Kieran Marmion applied one of his trademark snipes from the base of the ruck which got him in behind the Ulster defence, he offloaded to fan-favourite Bundee Aki and the Irish international used all of his strength to get the ball down despite being on the receiving end of a number of tackles.
After a frantic opening 10 minutes which yielded two tries for the home side, the game calmed down a bit but Connacht continued to show their territorial dominance as they went for a third try from a lineout maul but the ball was knocked on to the disappointment of the passionate crowd in attendance.
Ulster began to grow into the game more and thanks to some indiscipline from Connacht, Les Kiss’ side were able to put points on the board through the boot of John Cooney.
Any signs that Ulster were going to get back into this game were put to bed when Tiernan O’Halloran grabbed his side’s third try of the game thanks to an excellent individual effort. He broke the Ulster defence, sold a dummy and showed incredible strength to dot down despite a few tackle attempts.
Another Cooney penalty added another three points for Ulster and despite Connacht nearly going over for a fourth try on the stroke of halftime, Jack Carty added a penalty for the home side to give the Westerners a sizeable lead at halftime.
A great break from Aki brought play deep within the Ulster 22 at the start of the second half, just metres from their line. Connacht looked to heap more misery on their opponents but Ulster did well to turn the ball over and clear their lines. They did add to their lead, however. A huge scrum from Connacht led to Carty drilling a penalty into the corner. Nothing came of the lineout maul but Andrew Warwick was sin-binned for cynical play and Carty added another three points.
The lead with 30 minutes remaining was 23-6 to the home side and the ‘Fields Of Athenry’ rang around the Galway venue.
Things got even better for the home side when Louis Ludik was sin-binned for deliberately slapping the ball down. From the resulting penalty, Connacht went to the corner and Ulster could do nothing about the powerful lineout drive as Ultan Dillane dotted down for his side’s fourth try which secured the bonus point.
Connacht got another score as Niyi Adeolukun benefitted from an awkward bounce to make serious ground in the Ulster half, with a sizeable man-advantage, it was all too easy for Jarrad Butler to run in for a try after the ball was spread wide with a considerable overlap present.
Ulster did pull one back with just over 10 minutes remaining in the match when a lineout maul from the Kiss’ side brought play close to the Connacht line. The ball was given to Craig Gilroy who danced his way through some tackle attempts before being pushed over by one of his colleagues which helped him get the ball down. Johnny McPhillips couldn’t make the conversion.
With just minutes remaining, Ulster were close to another try when they were just metres from the line. However, the crucial pass was intercepted by Keane’s side and the ball was offloaded to Dillane who saluted the ecstatic crowd as he dotted down for his second.
Ulster did bag a final try through Rob Lyttle but it was all too little too late as Connacht ran out 44-16 winners.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolukun (Leader 64′), Bundee Aki (Griffin 64′), Thomas Farrell, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion (Mitchell 62′), Denis Coulson, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham (Carey 56′), Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux, Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler (Dawai 62′), John Muldoon.
Ulster: Jacob Stockdale, Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Peter Nelson (McPhillips 65′), John Cooney (Marshall 63′), Andrew Warwick (Ross 58′), John Andrew (Adam McBurney 46′), Wiehahn Herbst (Ross Kane 48′), Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack (Rea 65′), Clive Ross, Sean Reidy (Greg Jones 36′), Nick Timoney.