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Dublin: 16 °C Friday 14 August, 2020

Leaders Connacht make Ulster work hard to stay in playoff race

Pat Lam’s men finished with 13 men, but played the role of table-toppers superbly

Ulster 18

Connacht 10

ULSTER KEPT SOME heat on league leaders Connacht and the chasing pack with a victory over Pat Lam’s men in Belfast, keeping the northern province in contention for a top-four finish with only three rounds left to play.

Rory Best celebrates scoring a try with teammates Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

The eight-point winning margin, while indicative of the tightness of the encounter, also vitally deprived the visitors of a losing bonus point, leaving them static on 63 points while Ulster moved up to 55 and, temporarily at least, fourth in the table.

Rory Best and Craig Gilroy were the try-scorers for Les Kiss’ side, topped up by eight points from Paddy Jackson, while Caolin Blade touched down for Connacht and rookie out-half Shane O’Leary included five points from the boot.

Ireland’s first-choice centre partnership started at full-back for either side, with Jared Payne coming back into the Ulster team from international duty to his regular provincial post, while Robbie Henshaw slotted into the 15 shirt for Connacht in the absence of Tiernan O’Halloran, victim of a quad injury.

Once Jackson had drawn first blood for Ulster with a fifth-minute penalty, the league leaders soon got into gear. But when Gilroy pounced on a loose ball deep in his own half only a despairing shirt-tug from opposite number Matt Healy stopped the winger from breaking free for a nailed-on score.

Craig Gilroy and Matt Healy Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

A second Jackson penalty soon followed, but more expansive rugby from the Westerners again brought with it a tangible sense of menace, and as they kicked successive penalties to touch it took an eventual forward pass wide on the left to halt their progress.

Jackson eschewed a pop at the posts of his own on 27 minutes, the Ulster pack vindicating their out-half’s decision with a sublime 15-metre drive to the line, with Best carrying for two-thirds of the trip and touching down after Franco van der Merwe’s take.

The Jackson conversion came back off the post, but with Ulster now closing down their opponents much more quickly – and crucially first to every 50-50 ball – the visitors adopted a more realistic approach as half-time loomed, and O’Leary could only watch in disbelief as his 30-metre penalty thumped off an upright and directly into Ulster hands.

However one last effort from the out-half with the clock well into the red got his side off the mark to cut the Ulster lead to eight at the break.

Chris Henry, Callum Black, Roger Wilson and Franco van der Merwe keep an eye on Robbie Henshaw Ulster and Connacht are doing battle in Belfast tonight. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ulster’s start to the second half was nothing short of blistering, with the second try on the scoreboard within four minutes courtesy of some inspired ball-carrying from lock Peter Browne, and a spectacular diving offload in the tackle from Payne to allow Gilroy in for the score.

Jackson converted but, with his side soon down to 14 with Trimble sent to the bin for an intentional knock-on, defence became the order of the day – but there was little Jackson and Gilroy could do to stop replacement scrum-half Blade as he nipped through a gap on 55 minutes, O’Leary converting.

With Trimble back in the ranks for the final quarter, the Ulster complexion immediately regained its healthy glow, and another five-metre lineout almost paid dividends as Best this time peeled off the back of the maul and barged his way through four challenges to drop onto the line.

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Bundee Aki has words with Ulster players Feisty: Tempers boiled over at times as Connacht's defence frustrated the hosts. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

After some deliberation, however, TMO Brian MacNeice advised that the hooker had been held up in his attempt to ground, and the chance went begging as Connacht scrummaged combatively at five metres.

MacNeice was soon called into action once more to advise on a potential high tackle from O’Leary on Gilroy, which saw the out-half yellow-carded and put paid to any realistic hopes of a late Connacht comeback – particularly when Sean O’Brien joined him in the bin moments later for intentional obstruction.

Ulster probed and pressed for the remainder of the encounter, with tempers fraying three minutes from time in traditional inter-provincial fashion as Finlay Bealham and Iain Henderson squared up at the issue of a tightly-contested maul – but it all ended with a handshake and the Westerners ate up the remaining minutes with the ball in their hands.

Ulster Scorers

Tries: Rory Best, Craig Gilroy

Conversions: Paddy Jackson

Penalties: Paddy Jackson (2)

Connacht Scorers

Tries: Caolin Blade

Conversions: Shane O’Leary

Penalties: Shane O’Leary

Ulster: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar: Callum Black, Rory Best (c), Ricky Lutton, Peter Browne, Franco van der Merwe, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Kyle McCall, Bronson Ross, Robbie Diack, Sean Reidy, Paul Marshall, Stuart Olding, Darren Cave.

Connacht: Robbie Henshaw; Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki, Peter Robb, Matt Healy; Shane O’Leary, John Cooney:  Dennis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You, Andrew Browne, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon, James Connolly, Eoin McKeon.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Ronan Loughney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Sean O’Brien, Caolin Blade, Cormac Brennan, Danie Poolman

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As it happened: Ulster v Connacht, Guinness Pro12

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About the author:

Neil Carnduff

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