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Friend's impressive Connacht notch deserved bonus-point win over Ulster

Bundee Aki scored a powerful try on his 100th appearance for the province.

Connacht 26

Ulster 20

THERE WAS NOTHING on the line for either team aside from finally getting their 2019/20 seasons going again after a five-month break but Connacht outplayed Ulster in this Guinness Pro14 encounter to deservedly notch a bonus-point win as Bundee Aki led the charge.

Andy Friend’s side played with some style, scoring two superb tries in the first half and then adding a more direct pair in the second 40 minutes against an Ulster side who simply weren’t as sharp.

kieran-marmion-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-alex-wootton-tom-farrell-and-john-porch Connacht were full value for their bonus-point win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Results yesterday meant Dan McFarland’s men had already qualified for an away Pro14 semi-final before this clash but they will be disappointed to restart their campaign in error-strewn fashion.

Halfback pair Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty were excellent in guiding Connacht’s impressive performance while Aki – one of four Connacht men to kneel during the anti-racism ‘Unity Moment’ beforehand – was extremely powerful in midfield on his 100th appearance for the province, smashing ball-carriers and scoring an explosive try.

In the back three, fullback and man of the match John Porch and debutant wing pair Peter O’Sullivan and Alex Wootton shone. On loan from Munster for the season, Wootton looked like a man keen to relaunch his career after it had slowed up with the southern province.

Porch was among the try-scorers and Marmion dotted down a sweeping second, while tighthead prop Jack Aungier notched the fourth on his debut off the bench. Flanker Conor Oliver and loosehead Jordan Duggan also got debuts as replacements on what was a happy day for Connacht on a beautiful afternoon in Dublin.

The westerners showed they will be no pushover for Munster next weekend, with Johann van Graan’s side knowing a win will definitely seal their semi-final place. The only real negative for Connacht was a neck injury for lock Gavin Thornbury, who was stretchered off.

Meanwhile, Ulster will be taking a hard look at themselves ahead of next weekend’s clash with Leinster – another fixture that means nothing in the Pro14 picture but one they will now target as essential for regaining momentum, with a European quarter-final against Toulouse to come next month too. 

john-porch-scores-his-sides-opening-try John Porch scores Connacht's first. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Losing hooker and leader Rob Herring to a late injury before kick-off wasn’t ideal for Ulster and in contrast, Connacht’s centurion, centre and leader – Aki – started as he meant to continue with a huge tackle that set the tone for his team.

Ulster were first off the mark as their totemic number eight Marcell Coetzee won a breakdown turnover penalty that allowed John Cooney to slot the three points from around 38 metres out but Connacht swiftly shifted up the attacking gears in response. 

A scrum penalty gave them access to the Ulster half and their ensuing lineout attack was sharp as Dave Heffernan made a link pass out the back to Carty and he popped a short pass to Wootton, allowing him to make the initial break into Ulster’s 22. It took something special to find the finish and Carty delivered it with dancing footwork and a beautiful overhead pass that cleared Louis Ludik biting in and sent Porch over untouched.

Carty converted and was soon part of a thrilling counter-attack that saw Wootton beating defenders and offloading ambitiously. Ulster were hampered by knock-ons from Marty Moore and Adam McBurney – starting at hooker – in the opening 20 minutes but Cooney’s boot kept them ticking over with a second penalty after Ultan Dillane was pinged for not rolling away from the tackle.

Connacht’s second try was a genuine stunner. This time, tighthead Finlay Bealham made the link pass to Carty out the back and the number 10 sent Wootton scorching into a gap before he offloaded out towards Porch on the left touchline. The fullback seemed to be cornered but he produced a sensational rugby league-esque grubber kick back inside that sat up to reward Marmion for running a positive support line.

Again Carty converted to give Connacht’s champagne rugby a 14-6 reward on the scoreboard.

stuart-mccloskey-is-tackled-by-kieran-marmion-and-bundee Bundee Aki tackles Stuart McCloskey. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ulster fullback Jacob Stockdale was tackled in the air a few minutes later and after Bealham applauded Ulster’s decision to kick at goal, Cooney’s long-range effort flew wide.

McFarland’s men lost lock Alan O’Connor to a nasty concussion as he came down to ground hard following an Eoghan Masterson lineout steal for Connacht, and Ulster failed to close the gap before the break.

They had a big opportunity down in the left corner in the closing minutes of the half, being held up first when they looked certain to dot down with a powerful maul, but after winning a scrum penalty and going back into the corner, McBurney’s throw flew over and beyond the lineout in what was a big missed chance.

McFarland responded by sending on Alby Mathewson at scrum-half, as well as props Eric O’Sullivan and Tom O’Toole at half-time, with Connacht suffering a blow very soon after as lock Gavin Thornbury was stretchered off with a possible neck injury.

Ulster came out of the extended injury pause the sharper, with a powerful break from McCloskey through Carty taking him to within metres of the Connacht tryline but he couldn’t find someone to offload to. Instead, Connacht were caught offside and Ulster drove a five-metre maul over but were held up for a second time.  

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But they weren’t to be denied as they attacked from the five-metre scrum and, with penalty advantage playing, out-half Billy Burns ripped a pass wide right for Stockdale to finish a 49th-minute try.

jacob-stockdale-scores-a-try-despite-tom-farrell Stockdale finishes for Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Burns converted to leave Ulster 14-13 behind but a sloppy penalty concession by sub back row Matty Rea allowed Connacht to kick down into the right corner and respond within minutes. 

Their maul effort was initially repelled but wing Sullivan made a strong surge to the left and centre Tom Farrell picked and barrelled over from close-range two phases later, only for the TMO to rule his effort out for knocking-on across the tryline.

Referee Frank Murphy brought play back to a Connacht penalty and they opted for the five-metre scrum and simply hit the explosive Aki on a direct line to smash his way past Ian Madigan – just onto the pitch for his Ulster debut and return to Irish rugby – and score under the posts. Carty tapped over the extras for 21-13.

Connacht were reduced to 14 men when sub hooker Johnny Murphy was binned just two minutes after coming on as he infringed close to his side’s tryline with Ulster pressuring after some sharp passing by Madigan and Craig Gilroy had sent McCloskey charging down the left.

Ulster opted for a five-metre scrum with the penalty and barged their way over the tryline in the set-piece, Nick Timoney dotting down at the tail after moving to number eight and following a yellow card for Connacht’s Jonny Murphy. Madigan’s conversion left Ulster back within a point with 16 minutes left to play.  

bundee-aki-scores-a-try-despite-alby-mathewson Bundee Aki scored a muscular try on his 100th appearance. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

However, it didn’t help Ulster’s cause that 14-man Connacht dominated possession and territory for the remainder of the game after that Timoney score, with captain Jarrad Butler threatening wide on the right at one stage and Sullivan scything through in midfield on another occasion. 

Ulster simply couldn’t get out of their 22 as Connacht keep their foot on the throat, winning a penalty and kicking into the left corner with three minutes left rather than taking the shot at goal.

The pressure paid off as Aungier forced his way over to seal the deal. 

Connacht scorers:

Tries: John Porch, Kieran Marmion, Bundee Aki, Jack Aungier

Conversions: Jack Carty [3 from 4] 

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Jacob Stockdale, Nick Timoney

Conversions: Billy Burns [1 from 1], Ian Madigan [1 from 1]

Penalties: John Cooney [2 from 3]

CONNACHT: John Porch; Peter Sullivan, Tom Farrell (Tom Daly ’74), Bundee Aki, Alex Wootton; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley (Jordan Duggan ’71), Dave Heffernan (Jonny Murphy ’58 – yellow card ’61 to ’71), Finlay Bealham (Jack Aungier ’57); Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury (Niall Murray ’43); Eoghan Masterson (Conor Oliver ’69), Jarrad Butler (captain), Paul Boyle (Dave Heffernan ’61 to ’71).

Replacements not used: Stephen Kerins, Conor Dean.

ULSTER: Jacob Stockdale; Craig Gilroy, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik; Billy Burns (captain) (Ian Madigan ’51), John Cooney (Alby Mathewson ‘HT); Jack McGrath (Eric O’Sullivan ‘HT), Adam McBurney (John Andrew ’57), Marty Moore (Tom O’Toole ‘HT); Alan O’Connor (Sam Carter ’32 (HIA – Michael Lowry ’73)), Kieran Treadwell; Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee (Matthew Rea ’46). 

Referee: Frank Murphy.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from the Aviva Stadium

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