Connacht secure deserved win against Ulster in final play

Connacht players celebrate their side's victory in the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup match between Ulster and Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Connacht players celebrate their side's victory in the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup match between Ulster and Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

It had all the hallmarks of a rip-roaring inter-provincial. Despite the uncertainty of this new Rainbow Cup competition, and a troubled start with South African teams unable to travel, as far as inter-pros go, they don't come much more intense than Connacht's meeting with Ulster in Kingspan Stadium.

Both teams may have had different ambitions heading into the game - and Ulster will point to some defensive frailties - but it did not detract from the game's tempo, the combative nature of both sides, a first look at the new Captain's Challenge, and importantly for Connacht, a 24-26 win.

The new addition to the laws certainly played its part - Ulster wasting their challenge early in the game for what Friend described as a "really good tackle" from Abraham Papali'i, while Connacht kept their powder dry till it was needed. That it came to produce one last play from which Connacht grabbed the winning try, made it all the more rewarding.

The jury might still be out on the new law, but captain on the day Eoghan Masterson admits it was a huge moment for Connacht that won the game.

"We've been talking about managing games, and Friend's message was to leave the Captain's Challenge to the captain. When it came to it, it was Kieran Marmion really who was pretty upset because he felt the ball had been played on the ground. It was the last play and we had nothing to lose so we had to challenge it. It was the right call and a huge moment for us."

As a result Connacht were awarded a penalty. Three points down, a kickable penalty would have delivered a draw, but they opted to run the ball, and replacement outhalf Conor Fitzgerald delivered the perfect grubber for fellow replacement Peter Sullivan to pounce for the winning try.

An important call; a memorable result. Coming two years after Connacht claimed their first win in Ulster in 60 years, there can now be no suggestion that victory was an abberation. In contrast Friend was scathing of Ulster's use of the Captain's Challenge for a tackle from replacement Abraham Papali'i which was rejected.

"I thought you dopes," said Friend. "It was a really good tackle. He lined him up and hit him fair and square. Sometimes when you get hit by a truck, you wonder what just has happened, and you can ask what happened. But I was frustrated with that one. They had just scored a try, leave it alone, that's a footy collision and it was a good collision, and they wasted their Captain's Challenge."

Front foot ball

Papali'i delivered a strong performance. While the former league player may have struggled early in his time with Connacht to get his tackle height correct - and suffered two red cards - he added a real presence to the Connacht backrow, providing key impetus and front foot ball. Scrumhalf Caolan Blade was another to make his mark, scoring two tries, having been denied early in the game, while Ultan Dillane was a physical presence up front against Ulster's Iain Henderson, making his first start since the Six Nations.

Connacht's sense of urgency on the ball and their line-speed in defence set the tone early. It was rewarded with an eighth minute from Paul Boyle after a series of strong forward carries with Masterson, Finlay Bealham and Jordan Duggan involved. However, Ulster took a lead with two successive tries courtesy of their power up front for a half-time lead, before pushing it out to 17-7 when Billy Burns scored the third early in the second half.

Enter Papali'i from the bench, and the No 8 immediately made his presence felt, sending Blade through for a second try. The scrumhalf grabbed the third which was again fashioned by the pack, Ultan Dillane taking a leading role this time, with Tom Daly adding the extras. Eight minutes from time it looked like Ulster would yet again prevail in Ravenhill when Michael Lowry sent replacement scrumhalf David Shanahan through. But, with the clock ticking, Connacht used their Captain's Challenge well. There was a bit of luck and the bounce of the ball went Connacht's way, but Sullivan was the right man in the right place at the perfect time.

Without the weight of 60 years without a win, Connacht's self-confidence, motivation and emotional control were as effective as their physical attributes.

"A classic interpro game", said Friend but "from a defensive point of view, that increase in line speed we brought, the intensity we brought, and the physicality with our hits was really impressiive and nice to see that back again".

"I think the forwards took it upon themselves and the pack was outstanding, they fronted up as a Connacht person would say. Maybe in the past we wouldn't have finished them, but I think it is an upward curve from now on."

That will be the test. On too many occasions Connacht have responded to a poor display with a winning one, but failed to maintain that momentum. The disappointing European contest against Leicester provided the spark and response against Ulster. Now Connacht prepare to host Leinster, and need to repeat that confidence and intensity in the Sportsground when they meet on May 8.

Ulster: J Stockdale; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S Moore, E McIlroy, B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, T O'Toole, K Treadwell, I Henderson (capt ); M Rea, S Reidy, N Timoney. Replacements: W Addison for Stockdale 49; A O’Connor for Henderson 49; J Andrew for Herring 52; R Kane for O’Toole 61; G Jones for Treadwell 61; D Shanahan for Cooney 61; E O’Sullivan for Warwick 68; M Lowry for Burns 68.

Connacht: Porch; O'Donnell, O'Brien, Daly, Healy; Carty, Blade; Duggan, Heffernan, Bealham; Dillane, Thornbury; Masterson, Oliver, Boyle Replacements:P Sullivan for Healy 29m; A Papali’i for Boyle 48; M Burke for Duggan 52; D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham 52; C Fitzgerald for Carty 55; S Delahunt for Heffernan 58; K Marmion for Blade 68; N Murray for Thornbury 68.


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