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Connacht steal it at the death with dramatic try in the game's last attack

Connacht beat Ulster 26-24 at Kingspan Stadium in the opening game of the Rainbow Cup.

Ultan Dillane and Eoghan Masterson.
Ultan Dillane and Eoghan Masterson.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

ULSTER 24

CONNACHT 26

Garry Doyle reports from Kingspan Stadium

THIS WAS A superb game, one that gave us just about everything: tries, comebacks, momentum shifts and enough drama to stop us mocking the Rainbow Cup for the time being.

Connacht did it the hard way, coming from behind in the second-half, ultimately collecting the points when Conor Fitzgerald, their replacement out-half, delivered a perfectly weighted grubber kick that bounced awkwardly in the end goal area before Peter Sullivan grabbed it to score.

The TMO checked and double-checked it. Eventually, it was given and after a season when they have lost far too many of these tight games, Connacht finally have their day in the sun.

For Ulster, there’ll be regrets. Michael Lowry, their diminutive little playmaker, looked to have won the game for them with a superb break on 73 minutes, teeing up Dave Shanahan for the simplest of finishes.

But they fell asleep at the death, gifting Connacht the territory they craved when Ulster switched off in midfield, allowing Fitzgerald to make the game’s decisive break. Again controversy followed, Fitzgerald’s pass to Kieran Marmion interrupted by Lowry. The TMO picked up an earlier infringement by Lowry, and gifted Connacht a penalty.

Fitzgerald kicked it to the corner; Connacht’s pack took over, and after a few phases, the play moved back to the out-half who spotted Sullivan on his outside.

One grubber kick later and Connacht had the points.

It was the visitors who also made the sharper start, scoring in the seventh minute having nicked a Rob Herring line-out just outside their own 22 – Ultan Dillane with the steal – before they attacked, Pat Lam style, from deep inside their own half.

A breakdown penalty followed – credit Eoghan Masterson for his deep dive into the crowd of bodies to win it – before Jack Carty kicked for position. On they went, Dave Heffernan finding Dillane with his throw, play moving steadily towards the Ulster line, and after a series of pick-and-gos from close in, Paul Boyle edged over.

paul-boyle-scores-a-try Paul Boyle scores the opening try. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Carty added the conversion and thoughts turned back to Dan McFarland’s first season here, when Connacht did a number on them here in Belfast. This was the sequel.

But Ulster had their moments. Their two first-half tries, both forward-based, stemmed from line-outs in the Connacht ’22, the first ending with a trademark Stockdale finish – as the full-back entered the line at the opportune moment, ignoring Ethan McIlroy outside him, to dive for the corner.

John Cooney missed that conversion but he nailed the next, again from a tight angle, after Herring had touched down on 29 minutes following yet another effective Ulster maul. If that was their biggest weapon, then it certainly wasn’t their only one.

Stockdale, for starters, always looked a threat, dummying a pass shortly after his first score, to help Ulster gain the territory that would eventually lead to that Herring try. Others were making an impact too, Sean Reidy especially, but also Nick Timoney, who carried to the five-metre line before his hasty offload ended in Connacht hands.

For their part, Connacht had periods of dominance, too. They easily won the breakdown battle in the first quarter although they surrendered this advantage just as easily in the minutes leading up to half-time. Still, their second-row pairing, Dillane and Gavin Thornbury were having an impact; so too Sean O’Brien who made a clever break just before half-time, suggesting something magical might come from it.

jacob-stockdale-scores-a-try Jacob Stockdale scores for Ulster. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Not so, a needless turnover almost leading to an Ulster counter-attacking try – Jack Carty denied them that – before the whistle blew for a breathless half.

Onto the second 40 and the tempo remained high, Burns keeping the scoreboard ticking over with a third Ulster try – finished in the right corner after Cooney supplied the pass; the initial break to set the move up coming from James Hume who sliced through the Connacht midfield.

Worse again, from the visitors’ perspective, Carty collected a yellow card following a failed attempt to pick off a Burns pass earlier in the move.

So, 10 points down, one man down, you feared the worst for Connacht.

But instead of capitulating, they proceeded to control the following 10 minutes, which takes a bit of explaining.

So here goes. For starters, complacency definitely kicked into Ulster. Their handling got sloppy, they lost a key collision to Connacht replacement, Abraham Papali’i- and from seemingly nowhere, Caolin Blade appeared, seizing possession, taking advantage of a mix-up between Will Addison and Robert Baloucoune, to dance around them and score.

Centre Tom Daly added a tricky conversion and all of a sudden this was a three-point game; Connacht managing the remaining period of Carty’s sin-bin intelligently, Blade unafraid to use Papali’i as first receiver, and just as prepared to kick in behind the Ulster defence if he had to.

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The tide had turned. With an eye to next week, McFarland subbed his key men, Iain Henderson, Stockdale and Herring, and Connacht didn’t offer the red carpet treatment to their replacements.

Papali’i was having a major impact; so too Shane Delahunt and then, after turning down a couple of kickable penalties, they crossed for their third try, Blade the scorer after Dillane was ruled to have been stopped short of the line. Daly converted, Connacht moved to a 21-17 lead.

And still we had more drama, Lowry’s break to set up Shanahan on 73 minutes, Fitzgerald’s kick to set up Sullivan on 80. That, ultimately, was enough. Connacht win.

Ulster scorers

Tries Stockdale, Herring, Burns, Shanahan

Conversions Cooney (1/3), Lowry (1/1)

Connacht scorers

Tries Boyle, Blade 2, Sullivan

Conversions Carty (1/1) Daly (2/3)

Ulster: Jacob Stockdale (Will Addison ’48); Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns (Michael Lowry ‘69), John Cooney (David Shanahan ‘61); Andrew Warwick (Eric O’Sullivan ‘69), Rob Herring (John Andrew ‘54), Tom O’Toole (Ross Kane ‘61), Kieran Treadwell (Greg Jones ‘61), Iain Henderson (Alan O’Connor ‘49), Matty Rea, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.

Connacht: John Porch, Ben O’Donnell, Sean O’Brien, Tom Daly, Matt Healy (Peter Sullivan ’29), Jack Carty (yellow card 47 -Conor Fitzgerald ‘57), Caolin Blade (Kieran Marmion ’70); Jordan Duggan (Matthew Burke ‘53),  Dave Heffernan (Shane Delahunt ‘58), Finlay Bealham (Dominic Robertson-McCoy ‘54), Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury (Niall Murray ’68), Eoghan Masterson, Conor Oliver,Paul Boyle (Abraham Papali’i ‘47).

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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