Connacht open their New Year with another derby fixture, this time against a Leinster outfit that found its scoring form last weekend.
Leo Cullen’s side put their poor European form behind them to outscore Munster by 24-7, and in doing so moved within three points of Connacht on the Guinness Pro 12 league table.
As a result, there is much at stake for Connacht in this New Year’s Day derby at the RDS. Having fought so hard in the early part of the season to be in pole position, another defeat could see them slide into fourth place and lose their advantage over the chasing top six sides.
While Connacht’s Pat Lam says these festive derbies are not season defining, he will certainly not want to see his side lose the momentum at this crucial time.
He is expected to welcome the return of hooker Tom McCartney for this New Year’s Day fixture, and with no other injuries from last weekend’s 10-3 loss to Ulster, Connacht are in a better position than they have been for some weeks.
However their St Stephen’s performance at the Sportsground once again demonstrated the value of defence systems as Ulster provided a masterclass in keeping Connacht out, edging this tight festive derby with a 77th minute try from Man of the match Nick Williams.
As a result Connacht’s miserable record over Ulster continued - the consolations being a losing bonus point and no fresh injuries. And with this season’s unbeaten home record broken, they will certainly rue their failure to convert chances.
“There was an opportunity to get four points,” said Connacht’s Pat Lam. “Ulster have been playing extremely well, they were coming off two great wins, but we put them under a lot of presure, but it only counts if we get the points.
“We were 3-3 with three minutes to go. We had chances to nail it, and that’s our learnings. We went toe to toe with a team that put 60 points on Toulouse and it was only in the last few minutes. So there are a lot of positives - the biggest one is no injuries - but it’s a big game in their rugby education.”
Statistics reveal an evenly matched game between two sides that enjoy playing attacking rugby. While Ulster’s defence was superb, its attack was also a little more incisive, particularly the midfield partnership of Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey, which created space for prominent left wing Rory Scholes.
Scholes’ deft kick ahead set up position for Ulster’s winning try, and from a scrum, replacement No 9 Paul Marshall skipped McCloskey to find Luke Marshall on the burst who set up camp under the posts. Nick Williams had the power and wherewithal to dive through the ruck, with Jackson adding the extras.
Ulster had held a 3-0 half time lead from a single Jackson penalty in the 32nd minute after surviving a determined opening from the home side in which they opted to kick penalties to touch. Connacht No 8 Eoghan Masterson could have scored out wide, had he been able to hold the offload, and Craig Ronaldson was off target with a kickable penalty.
Connacht regained control after the break with Niyi Adeolokun looking the most dangerous of the home side’s attack, and they were rewarded with a penalty which Ronaldson again missed. However Aj MacGinty, who had taken over the kicking duties on his introduction for Jack Carty, nailed a 62nd minute effort to draw level. However a missed touch from a penalty saw Ulster regain the initiative and the momentum.
Lam’s Connacht has now lost its last two Pro 12 fixtures, while also losing to Newcastle in the Challenge Cup, but he remains “extremely proud” of his players.
“They have worked hard, under adversity, and there have been so many times we have been challenged and the boys have stood up to it. Today was one of another example of that. We are playing some really good rugby, collectively there are no stars, just guys all working, and when you look at it, we have used 45 players so far, and considering the number of young guys playing and Irish players, we are in a good space.”
Not a season-defining game, said Lam. “No, there were points are points on offer. Whether it’s top six or bottom six, it doesn’t mean anything till you get to May.”
“We went into this asking how do we beat an Ulster team that is playing outstanding rugby and we almost did it. Disappointed, there were chances, but we didn’t take them. In heavy conditions with a wet ball, I thought we played some pretty good rugby and some good skills, but we just weren’t clinical enough in getting over the line, and taking our shots at goal. We have to live with that, and use it as motivation to build into the next game, where another four points are on the line.”
Yellow cards: Ulster, Luke Marshall 58m.
Scorers - Connacht: MacGinty pen. Ulster: Williams try; Jackson pen, con.
Connacht: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion, F Bealham, D Heffernan, N White, U Dillane, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (capt ), J Connolly, E Masterson. Replacements, D Heffernan for Delahunt and S O’Brien for Masterson (55 ), Aj MacGinty for Carty and A Browne for Muldowney (57 ), R Loughney for Bealham (61 ), R Ah You for White (69 ), R Parata for Ronaldson and I Porter for Marmion (78 ),
Ulster: L Ludik; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Scholes; P Jackson, R Pienaar (P Marshall 69 ); A Warwick (C Black 44 ), R Herring (capt ), W Herbst (R Lutton 51 ); A O’Connor (S Mulholland 71 ), F van der Merwe; R Diack, S Reidy (R Wilson 55 ), N Williams. Replacements, C Black for Warwick (44 ), R Lutton for Herbst (51 ) R Wilson for Reidy (55 ), P Marhsall for Pienaar (69 ), S Mulholland for O’Connor (71 ).
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU ).