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Mack the Knife scores twice as Connacht nail bonus-point win over Ulster at the Aviva

Two tries from Mack Hansen helped Connacht defeat Ulster at the Aviva Stadium in the URC championship.

Mack Hansen scores for Connacht.
Mack Hansen scores for Connacht.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

CONNACHT 36

ULSTER 11

Garry Doyle reports from the Aviva Stadium

THEY MAY NOT be the best side in Ireland but they are certainly the best to watch. Even when they lose, they never cease to entertain. But let’s not patronise Connacht. They may be easy on the eye but they are anything other than easy to play against.

Here in the Aviva, they were brilliant, providing Ulster with a sober reality check, roughing up their young diamond, Nathan Doak, from the first whistle, upsetting Dan McFarland’s side with their line speed, decoding their attacking plans to pick off two passes from Billy Burns and grab 14 points from the exercise.

There’s more. In Dave Heffernan, Conor Oliver and Jack Carty they have three players in serious form, not good enough to make it into Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad. There’s an injustice to Carty’s exclusion, certainly, also Heffernan’s. Keep an eye too on Irish-qualified wing, Mack Hansen. He got two tries here and could have had a hat-trick.

As for Andy Friend, their smart and patient coach, this was what he needed. They should have beaten Munster last weekend but couldn’t buy a break. This time they did. Ulster came at them hard. Connacht stayed in the fight, edged in front, then extended the lead bit by bit.

Credit Friend for the wisdom of his tactics and also the use of his bench. Entering the final quarter, he had all bar one of his replacements on the park and the freshness told. That third quarter, when they upped the tempo, was their best rugby of the season. The 9,875 fans responded with a chorus of the Fields of Athenry. It was one of their best nights in a while.

john-porch-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try-with-conor-fitzgerald John Porch celebrates a try for Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The intensity was evident from the start, Oliver introducing himself to Doak in the opening minute, Tom Daly making acquaintances with the scrum-half shortly afterwards. Was this the moment you knew they’d win? You’d be a liar if you said it was because those opening passages were dominated by Ulster, one crunching tackle by David McCann on Jack Carty leaving an impression on everyone, not just the Connacht full-back.

Two things were noteworthy in this period, Ulster’s fitness, the speed they raced to breakdowns, their willingness to set the tempo; secondly their ability to eke out penalties.

One of those led to the first score, Doak kicking it, Ulster establishing a three-point lead. You couldn’t fail to notice the early impression Stuart McCloskey and Rob Herring were making and all the while your deep-lying belief was that Ulster were going to build a lead.

Well, how wrong was that thought? Connacht fought back brilliantly, their defence as impressive for its focus as it was for its bravery. They stayed patient when things weren’t going their way and then, ruthlessly, exploited the first opportunity that arrived, Ultan Dillane providing some tidying at the breakdown, Kieran Marmion setting a high tempo, allowing Daly and Paul Boyle to showcase their handling skills and put Niall Murray through the tiniest of gaps in the Ulster midfield.

It was a lengthy enough run-in for the big second-row and when Ethan McIlroy and Robert Baloucoune came across to try and stop him, you wondered if this would be Murray’s Devon Loch moment.

We need not have worried. The kid has a fair bit of pace. His finish was brilliant. Carty converted, Connacht led, and the tone of the game changed there and then.

No longer did Ulster have things their own way. More to the point, they knew they wouldn’t. While their decision-making was initially sober, Doak being asked to kick a penalty to cut the gap to 7-6 on 17 minutes, later in the half they turned down the chance to land another kickable penalty and instead exited the Connacht 22 with nothing.

By way of contrast, Connacht were proving to be much more efficient in the red-zone, Hansen continuing his fine form with yet another try, this an opportunist one, when he picked Billy Burns’ floated pass and weaved his way to the line.

mack-hansen-scores-a-try-despite-robert-baloucoune Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That made it 14-6, which soon turned to 17-6 as Carty kicked his first penalty of the afternoon, awarded for a high tackle on Heffernan. In truth, Connacht could have, make that should have, had another try but no one offered a decent support line to O’Halloran as he raced into the Ulster ‘22.

Later, another chance went away, when Carty opted to go right instead of left, where Hansen was eyeing up a one-on-one opportunity with Doak. Still, a 17-6 half-time lead was as good as they could have hoped for, considering the amount of quality possession that Ulster had, considering too that John Porch got away with one when he failed to gather a Burns grubber, James Hume knocking on when the line was in sight.

On it went.

There were yellow cards, one for Ulster lock, Alan O’Connor, another two minutes later for his direct opponent, Ultan Dillane. There was that failed attempt to get across the Ulster line when Carty ignored the Hansen option in the 35th minute; there was the frantic start to the second half when an extraordinary crossfield kick from Carty found Boyle on the wing. Somehow Ulster scrambled to hold them out.

niall-murray-competes-in-the-air-with-iain-henderson Henderson takes a catch. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

They wouldn’t do so for much longer.

Connacht were in full flow by now. One try, a fine backline move that saw Kieran Marmion, Carty, replacement Conor Fitzgerald and Hansen combine, ended with John Porch supplying a brilliant finish.

Hansen would finish things off with a sprint down the left wing; but his joy was surpassed by Diarmuid Kilgallen’s reaction when he thieved an intended pass from Burns to Ross Kane. That was the try that sealed it, Brad Roberts’ score from a maul little more than a consolation for Ulster.

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Connacht scorers

Tries: Murray, Hansen 2, Porch, Kilgallen

Conversions: Carty (4/5)

Penalties: Carty (1/3)

Ulster scorers

Tries: Roberts

Conversions: Lowry (0/1)

Penalties: Doak (2/3)

Connacht Rugby: Tiernan O’Halloran (rep: Diarmuid Kilgallen HIA ’55-); John Porch, Sammy Arnold, Tom Daly (rep: Conor Fitzgerald ’57), Mack Hansen; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion (rep: Caolin Blade ’69); Matthew Burke (rep: Jordan Duggan ’54), Dave Heffernan (rep: Shane Delahunt ’54), Finlay Bealham (rep: Jack Aungier ’57), Niall Murray, Ultan Dillane (yellow card 36 -46, rep: Oisin Dowling ’54)), Eoghan Masterson, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle (rep: Jarrad Butler ’59)

Ulster Rugby: Ethan McIlroy (rep: Ben Moxham ’65); Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy (rep: Mike Lowry ’24); Billy Burns (rep: Mike Lowry ‘), Nathan Doak (rep: David Shanahan ’66), Eric O’Sullivan (rep: Andrew Warwick ’51), Rob Herring (rep: Brad Roberts ’51), Tom O’Toole (rep: Ross Kane ’51), Alan O’Connor (yellow card 34-44), Iain Henderson (rep: Kieran Treadwell ’55.), Matty Rea, Nick Timoney, David McCann (rep: Greg Jones ’55).

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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