Connacht must make the most of a week’s break from RaboDirect Pro 12 action before they entertain an Ulster side intent on joining fellow Irish provinces in the season’s top four play-offs.
Ulster, currently in fifth, travel to Galway just one point behind both Munster and Glasgow, but they can expect to find a determined Connacht who enjoyed a deserved boost from their 27 - 19 victory over the Dragons last weekend in Rodney Parade.
Only their second away win this season, Connacht were full value for this victory - displaying real attacking prowess in the opening half before producing a well organised and committed second half defensive display as a result of a lop-sided penalty count by first-time league referee Guiseppe Vivarini from Italy.
Coach Eric Elwood said it was a “good night’s work” for his squad.
“The way we bounced back from losing to Munster was terrific, and they way we played in the first 60 minutes was fantastic. The penalty count went against us in the second half, 14 to 5, which upset us a little bit, but our defence was magnificent.”
Fetu Vainikolo, on the left wing for this fixture, struck for two goals, his third in three matches, and outhalf Miah Nikora posted the remaining points in a near-perfect kicking record.
After a run of four wins from five and with their internationals back from duty, the Dragons had targeted this match as a real opportunity to close the gap on Cardiff. Yet it was Connacht who led 19 - 9 at the break after a lively opening half in which they dominated both possession and territory for a second successive week. Creating at least three trying scoring chances - one of which they converted - they made their dominance count on the scoreboard through the boot of outhalf Miah Nikora.
After an early Lewis Robling penalty, Connacht capitalised from a counterattack, started and finished by Vainikolo. Brett Wilkinson made a impact when charging through the middle, and from a couple of phases and quick ruck ball, Gavin Duffy's skip pass found Vainikolo who finished off in the left corner.
Nikora added the conversion, but Robling responded with a second penalty before Connacht took over. Superior in the scrum, the loose, and out wide, Nikora capitalised to establish a 16 - 6 lead.
With some electric running from both wingers, and the pack aggressive at the breakdown, Connacht were in command, particularly when returning Wales international Dan Lydiate was binned and Nikora stretched the lead to 13 points. Connacht should have added to their try tally but O’Halloran was ruled in touch before finding the supporting Kyle Tonetti five metres from the line, and a Connacht knock on five minutes later stymied another gilt-edged chance.
The Dragons added a penalty before the break before Vainikoo struck for this second try within a minute of the restart.
Therafter, however, it was a penalty fest from referee Vivarini, ensuring Connacht were on the back foot for long periods. Ronan Loughney and Eoghan Grace were yellow carded and, although Robling reduced the gap before the influential No 8 Toby Faletau finally broke through for a try, an immense defensive display ensured Connacht secured a valuable away win.
Connacht: G Duffy, T O' Halloran, K Tonetti, H Fa'afili, F Vainikolo, M Nikora, F Murphy, B Wilkinson E Reynecke, R Loughney, M Swift, M McCarthy, M Kearney, R Ofisa, J Muldoon. Replacements, E Grace for Ofsia (77m ), E McKeon for Kearney (77m ), A Flavin for Reynecke (80m ).