Ben Brady/INPHO Ulster's Alan O'Connor wins a lineout.
On song
Ulster outscore Connacht five tries to one to get their season off to a flier
Ulster defeated Connacht 36-10 in the opening night of this season’s URC.



AS OPENING NIGHTS GO, this wasn’t a bad show. We had the main man back on stage after a year out, a young protégé showing yet again he is comfortable under the spotlight, and then you had the show-stealing unsung hero.

No one would have predicted that Tom Stewart would have said that of him before kick-off but at the end of a night when the Ulster maul contributed to four of their five tries, the Ulster hooker was justifiably awarded the player of the match award, after getting one of those scores.

The good points didn’t stop there. Jacob Stockdale was back in competitive rugby after a year out with injury. He did enough to suggest he can get back to his best.

Looking at the final score, you could say the same about Ulster, but the win obscures the fact they were rusty. Yes, they outscored Connacht five tries to one; yes, their scrum was better – backboned by Marty Moore’s fine display at tighthead – but a number of handling errors in the first-half, coupled with a couple of crooked line-outs, reminded us they are still a work in progress.

The plusses can’t be ignored, though. Both centres, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall, played well – Marshall making a couple of decent breaks before he got the try his performance deserved, McCloskey the provider with a Larry Bird style over-the-shoulder basketball pass.

That came on 29 minutes, breathing life into a game that desperately needed it. For until then, there was plenty of huff and puff but precious little quality, Connacht showing admirable resilience in defence but a distinct lack of composure in Ulster’s half.

And you can’t just pin that failing on their backs because there was also a crooked line-out and a couple of scrum penalties that blotted their copybook. None of their starters were having a shocker by any means but, at the same time, no one was putting their hand up to alert Andy Farrell to their credentials.

There’ll be a couple of Ulstermen whose cause has advanced, though. Moore, ignored for so long at international level, has to be considered at some point soon and not just because he is good in the scrum. Then there is Nathan Doak, the young scrum half. His attributes aren’t just limited to his goalkicking – he landed five from six by the way. He also has a pass, a break, is an accomplished boxkicker, a decent defender and when a tryscoring opportunity presented itself, he took it.

Plus there is a smart tactical brain in operation, the youngster sacrificing his ego to support his captain Alan O’Connor’s decision to go for the corner rather than the posts just prior to the Marshall try.

It was the smart call. The Ulster maul is famously efficient and with O’Connor collecting Stewart’s throw five metres from the Connacht line, a sense of inevitability followed.

tom-stewart-with-the-player-of-the-match-award Evan Treacy / INPHO Tom Stewart with his man of the match award. Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Progress was made up front, and then with a penalty advantage, Doak seized control, delivering a sharp pass to McCloskey who took out two defenders with a mixture of brute strength and soft hands.

Finally ahead, the game turned.

Within 15 minutes of the second half, it was practically over, for by now another couple of Ulster tries had been scored – each stemming from close-range line-outs, each seeing Stewart break off the back of the maul to burst to the line, making it all the way with his 37th minute effort just before half-time, getting stopped just short of it soon after the break.

It didn’t matter because Doak was following up and with 50 minutes on the clock, try number three was on the board for Ulster.

In response, Connacht were offering little, a Conor Fitzgerald penalty their only score until the final ten minutes, the key moment in their game coming on 56 minutes, when they failed with their attempts to get across the Ulster line with a series of drives from five metres out.

By this stage it was 24-3 – a Doak penalty just after half-time adding to Ulster’s tally – but there was only one side that was going to win.

Sure enough, with 63 minutes clocked, they got their fourth try, Stewart Moore with it, touching down in the right corner after a smart pass by Billy Burns. Later, Callum Reid got a fifth – the maul again their launchpad but try of the night belonged to Connacht, when they countered from just outside their own 22, David Hawkshaw with a long, whipped pass to set them in motion, before he ran a loop to get involved again, finally passing inside to Caolin Blade who touched down.

caolin-blade-scores-a-try Evan Treacy / INPHO Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

That, though, was as good as it got for Connacht. They need to get better quick.

Ulster scorers

Tries: Marshall, Stewart, Doak, Moore, Reid

Conversions: Doak (4/5)

Penalties: Doak (1/1)

Connacht scorers

Tries: Blade

Conversions: Hawkshaw (1/1)

Penalties: Fitzgerald (1/1)

Ulster: Stewart Moore, Rob Baloucoune (rep: Sexton 78), Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey (rep: Angus Curtis ’55), Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns (rep: David Shanahan ’69), Nathan Doak (rep: David Shanahan ‘) Eric O’Sullivan (rep: Callum Reid ‘58), Tom Stewart (rep: John Andrew ‘60), Marty Moore (rep: Jeff Toomaga-Allen ’65), Alan O’Connor (CAPT), Sam Carter (Cormac Izuchukwu ’58), Matty Rea, Marcus Rea, David McCann (rep: Jordi Murphy ’58)

Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran (Alex Wootton ’67), Byron Ralston, Tom Farrell (rep: Alex Wootton 35-40), Tom Daly, John Porch, Conor Fitzgerald (rep: David Hawkshaw ’49), Kieran Marmion (rep: Caolin Blade ‘51), Peter Dooley (rep: Denis Buckley ‘51), Dave Heffernan (rep: Dylan Tierney-Martin ‘51), Jack Aungier (rep: Sam Illo ‘57), Gavin Thornbury (CAPT), Leva Fifita (rep: Niall Murray ’60), Josh Murphy, Conor Oliver (rep: Shamus Hurley-Langton ’41) Paul Boyle (yellow card 63-73)

Referee: Eoghan Cross (IRFU)

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