Billy Stickland/INPHO
rare and wonderful

Connacht bridge 4-year wait to beat Ulster in inter-pro thriller

Ulster went to Galway with five wins from five this season, but came well and truly unstuck.

Connacht 30

Ulster 25

CONNACHT ARE BACK. Let there be no doubt.

Pat Lam went in to this week hailing a return to form and asking his team to complete the set of provincial scalps.

Ulster – who had not lost to Connacht since 2012 – were the last Irish team to taste defeat against Lam’s Connacht. And the seven-try thriller won’t be a game anybody will forget in a hurry.

Despite coughing up what was at one stage a 16-point lead, tries from Jack Carty, James Connolly and a brace from Cian Kelleher gave the Westerners a bonus point win from a contest that was a brilliant showcase of Irish attacking rugby from start to finish.

The hosts powered their way to a dream start. Hooker Dave Heffernan fended off makeshift second row Robbie Diack on a storming run through the middle. Ulster’s scramble left Connacht camped in the corner, but they weren’t settled for long before the ball was whipped to Carty and he stepped in under the posts untouched with just over two minutes on the clock.

When Jackson put his first score on the board minutes later, it felt like a settler. Instead though, Connacht refused to allow their guests get comfortable. Les Kiss clearly instructed his side to limit their kicks to the Connacht back three, but their ventures into opposition territory was met with ferocious defence and tenacious breakdown work led by Jake Heenan.

Connacht won the ball for themselves and, as ever, put it to good use with the sort of enthusiastic and fearless passing that has become a trademark. Their best series of phases came just after 20 minutes and the pressure told in spades as Ulster’s defence was stretched to breaking point with Bundee Aki helping on a pass to Kelleher whose electric pace made him a thrilling sight finishing in the corner.

Cian Kelleher  scores his sides fourth try James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Carty’s conversion hit the post, but the mild disappointment was scorched away within a minute. Connacht clearly sniffed blood and Darren Cave was flailing at Heffernan as he charged through midfield again. Suddenly, there was a three on one overlap on the right flanker. Tiernan O’Halloran didn’t quite manage to lay on the score in textbook fashion, but Connolly was the hungry trail-runner in green and crashed over the line from an instant pass from the bottom of the ruck.

The Sportsground was absolutely rocking at that point, settling only to see Carty swing over the conversion to make it 19 -3.

Rory Best’s influence at the coalface became evident as Ulster tightened everything up and targeted the maul. It bore dividends as prop Conor Carey was sin-binned a minute before Craig Gilroy gratefully accepted a long pass back to the left and grounded.

Carty kicked a penalty to make the half-time score 22 – 8, but the northern province mauled their way to a second try before the sin-bin period ended and caught Connacht with a precision move off a line-break which sent Tommy Bowe ghosting between Heenan and Heffernan before gliding a left-handed pass to give Jared Payne an easy finish. Incredibly, the game was level.

Over and over again Connacht proved an impossibly stubborn team to shake off last season, and they weren’t going to submit to one single wave of momentum tonight. They regrouped and went back to what they do best, attacking, stretching teams and punishing narrow defences. The faithful fans in Galway trust their team completely, so the try-scoring roar went up as soon as the ball was in Craig Ronaldson’s hands and his pass to Kelleher didn’t let them down.

Ulster’s Roger Wilson loses his shirt as behind him Rory Best scores a try Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Bonus point secured, only the small matter of victory was left for the westerners. Carty had missed his fourth conversion attempt, but his 40 metre penalty on the hour was a huge chunk of insurance as it left the home side eight points to the good.

With the crowd baying for blood throughout, Jackson converted a monster score of his own to pull his side back within a score, but they faced a performance of champions and when Ross Kane picked up a yellow card for his team’s persistent infringement, the Pro12′s last remaining unbeaten run was as over.



Tries: J Carty,  C Kelleher (2), J Connolly

Conversions: J Carty (4/2)

Penalties: J Carty (2/2)


Tries: C Gilroy, R Best, J Payne

Conversions: P Jackson (3/2)

Penalties: P Jackson (2/2)


15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Bundee Aki
12. Craig Ronaldson
11. Cian Kelleher
10 Jack Carty (Shane O’Leary ’70)
9. Caolin Blade

1. Finlay Bealham ( Ronan Loughney ’60)
2. Dave Heffernan (Shane Delahunt ’73)
3. Conor Carey (JP Cooney ’60)
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Andrew Browne
6. Eoin McKeon (James Connolly ’8)
7. Jake Heenan
8. John Muldoon (Capt.)


15. Jared Payne (Capt)
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Louis Ludik (Brett Herron ’63)
12. Darren Cave (Rob Lyttle ’40)
11. Craig Gilroy
10. Paddy Jackson
9. Paul Marshall

1. Callum Black (Andy Warwick ’55)
2. Rory Best (Rob Herring ’62)
3. Rodney Ah You (Ross Kane ’56)
4. Robbie Diack
5. Pete Browne (Kieran Treadwell ’62)
6. Iain Henderson
7. Clive Ross
8. Roger Wilson (Sean Reidy ’55)

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