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Sublime Coetzee drives Ulster into Pro14 semi-final clash with Glasgow

Rory Best and Darren Cave bid farewell to the Kingspan Stadium in winning fashion against Connacht.

Ulster 21

Connacht 13

Murray Kinsella reports from Kingspan Stadium

THIS WAS SUPPOSED to be all about Rory Best saying goodbye but Marcell Coetzee stole the show with a man-of-the-match performance as Ulster secured their first Guinness Pro14 semi-final since 2016.

Dan McFarland’s side will travel to Glasgow in two weekends’ time, a daunting task but one they will relish as they continue to improve under their head coach’s guidance.

Ulster captain Best got a rousing reception coming onto the pitch with his three children alongside him before his final appearance at the Kingspan Stadium and an even louder standing ovation when he departed in the 69th minute.

Marcell Coetzee with Jarrad Butler Coetzee was man of the match for Ulster. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

With two superb breakdown turnovers inside the Ulster 22, Best showed there is life in the old dog yet and he will lead the northern province once again as they take on the Warriors in the final four of the Pro14 at Scotstoun on Friday 17 May. 

Darren Cave said farewell to this ground too, making a 13-minute appearance in the second half and getting a fond thanks from a packed house.

South African back row Coetzee was immense throughout for Ulster, bringing brutal power and no shortage of skill in a superb try-scoring performance.

Fellow forwards like Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell, try-scorer Nick Timoney and tighthead prop Ross Kane followed his brilliant example, while scrum-half John Cooney controlled the tempo and kicked well.

Connacht, for their part, will be disappointed not to have delivered what they are capable of on a dispiriting end to what has been a season of renewal under head coach Andy Friend.

Bundee Aki’s second-half try, which came from a Colby Fainga’a intercept, gave them some hope in what was a tight contest throughout but Connacht never managed to edge in front in Belfast.

That they have already guaranteed themselves Champions Cup rugby for next season makes this campaign a success but the westerners will watch on with envy as Leinster, Munster and Ulster compete in the semi-finals. 

Rory Best leads his team out with his children Rory Best received a rousing reception just before kick-off. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Cooney nudged Ulster into a fifth-minute lead after some strong carry by Coetzee and Timoney led to Fainga’a handling the ball in a ruck and giving up a shot at goal.

Connacht responded by shoving Ulster back at maul time and then winning a scrum penalty but Jack Carty missed touch and the home side applied pressure again, drawing a costly aerial knock-on from Connacht fullback Tiernan O’Halloran.

McFarland’s side used the turnover to devastating effect as their phase play created space on the left, where Coetzee offloaded wonderfully when Stephen Fitzgerald bit in off his wing, before Treadwell did the same out of O’Halloran’s tackle.

Timoney thundered into space and, though he had support inside and out, used his footwork to beat last defender Matt Healy for a wonderful try that Cooney couldn’t convert.

A lineout trick play nearly had Connacht onto the scoreboard as Eoin McKeon returned the ball for hooker Dave Heffernan to sneak along the right touchline, only for Ulster wing Rob Lyttle to produce a brilliant try-saving tackle on the bigger man.

Connacht retained possession and battered away at the Ulster tryline but captain Best produced a turnover to relieve the pressure. Friend’s men came back at them but, second time around, a thunderous Robert Baloucoune tackle on O’Halloran forced a knock-on.

Nick Timoney runs in a try Nick Timoney crosses for Ulster's first-half try. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The visitors did finally get on the scoreboard after half an hour, a beautiful pass by Jack Carty sending Matt Healy scorching down the left, before Treadwell failed to roll away at a subsequent ruck and Carty knocked over the three points.

Ulster began to take control in the scrum with Ross Kane – deputising for the injured Marty Moore – doing well and Connacht had the misfortune of losing influential lock Gavin Thornbury to an injury he suffered as he made his second lineout steal of the day.

And Ulster were able to extend their lead out to 11-3 just before the half-time break as Bundee Aki was penalised for not wrapping in a tackle on Billy Burns following some strong Connacht defence, Cooney slotting the shot at goal – having spent 10 minutes undergoing an HIA.

A Denis Buckley turnover penalty was needed in Connacht territory to repel Ulster’s early efforts in the second half before Carty missed with a long-range attempt off the tee following a collapsed maul from the Ulstermen.

Best then produced his second turnover of the day in the Ulster 22 – this time for a penalty – as Connacht desperately searched for a first try of the game. In the end, it came from their defence.

Bundee Aki reacts Bundee Aki scored for Connacht. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Openside Fainga’a picked off a Burns pass to Coetzee near the halfway line in the 55th minute and broke clear of McCloskey, before throwing a delightful blind offload to the supporting Aki, who went through Baloucoune and replacement Cave to score under the posts, with Carty converting to leave his team trailing by a point.

Cooney was able to extend the Ulster advantage heading into the final 15 minutes, however, as Eoghan Masterson – on for Thornbury – failed to roll away from a tackle and the scrum-half slotted the three points for a 14-10 scoreline.

A tense battle continued as Carty kicked three off the tee in the 68th minute, as referee Andrew Brace decided that Coetzee had handled the ball illegally in a ruck and back we see-sawed to 14-13 in Ulster’s favour.

But Coetzee put the contest to bed in the closing minutes as he battered over for a well-earned try that Burns converted to seal Ulster’s deserved win.  

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Nick Timoney, Marcell Coetzee

Conversions: John Cooney [0 from 1], Billy Burns [1 from 1]

Penalties: John Cooney [3 from 3]

Connacht scorers:

Tries: Bundee Aki

Conversions: Jack Carty [1 from 1]

Penalties: Jack Carty [2 from 3]

ULSTER: Mike Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, Luke Marshall (Darren Cave ’50 – reversal ’63), Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle; Billy Burns, John Cooney (HIA – Dave Shanahan ’24 to ’34, permanent ’69); Eric O’Sullivan, Rory Best (captain) (Rob Herring ’69), Ross Kane (Tom O’Toole ’69); Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell (Alan O’Connor ’73); Nick Timoney (Sean Reidy ’80), Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee.

Replacements: Andy Warwick, Angus Kernohan.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Stephen Fitzgerald, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki (Tom Daly ’63), Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion (Caolin Blade ’52); Denis Buckley (Peter McCabe ’71), Dave Heffernan (Shane Delahunt ’57), Finlay Bealham (Conor Carey ’52); Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury (Eoghan Masterson ’34); Eoin McKeon, Colby Fainga’a (Paul Boyle ’65), Jarrad Butler (captain).

Replacements: Darragh Leader.

Referee: Andrew Brace [IRFU].

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Murray Kinsella

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