Bowe leads Ulster to victory
Tommy Bowe notched his 60th and 61st Guinness Pro12 tries as Ulster led from start to finish in a 27-20 bonus point win over Connacht at the Sportsground.
Bowe, the league's record try scorer, touched down in both halves to see the Ulstermen claim the interprovincial derby spoils and keep pace with their play-off rivals at the top of the table.
Aided by a strong first half wind, the visitors led 17-0 at the interval with Louis Ludik's fourth-minute try followed by touchdowns from his back-three colleagues Bowe (31) and Craig Gilroy (34).
Connacht responded with a classy converted try from Matt Healy and a Miah Nikora penalty. However, they leaked further scores to Bowe and Ulster captain Rory Best before earning a losing bonus point thanks to Jack Carty's conversion of Tiernan O'Halloran's 70th-minute effort.
While the five-try success sees Ulster stay second behind leaders Glasgow, today's defeat leaves Connacht with an uphill battle to hold off Edinburgh and the Scarlets for that sixth and final European Champions Cup qualifying spot.
Jared Payne sliced open the Connacht midfield with an incisive early run, sparking a spell of patient Ulster recycling. After Iain Henderson was hauled down near the posts, the ball was shifted right by Paddy Jackson for full-back Ludik to get over past Connacht out-half Nikora, who replaced late withdrawal Craig Ronaldson (quad).
The conversion was missed by Ruan Pienaar who also missed a long-range penalty as Connacht responded in very good fashion, increasing the tempo with some smart running from Danie Poolman and Kieran Marmion.
The returning Bundee Aki went close to scoring an opportunist try, diving on a ball near the Ulster line that Pienaar just had enough control of. Neil Doak's men had to absorb further pressure with Chris Henry having a key presence at the breakdown on his first start since October.
Despite allowing Connacht a 61% share of possession before half-time, Ulster gave a warning of their attacking prowess with a slashing break by Darren Cave. Aly Muldowney won a relieving penalty for the hosts, but a quick turnover conceded by Aki saw Jackson release Bowe for a mismatch with Quinn Roux and the Ireland international finished well in the right corner.
It got worse for Connacht just three minutes later when Ulster again utilised the space out wide, this time on the left. Gilroy was able to cut past both Roux and Poolman to run in his 10th try of the league campaign, and Pienaar added the conversion for a 17-0 buffer.
However, Pat Lam's side burst out of the blocks on the resumption with winger Healy central to their revival. He fended off Henry and showed brilliant acceleration to part the Ulster defence and dive over to the left of the posts.
Nikora converted and also pinged over a penalty after Connacht had won a scrum against the head. The gap was down to 10 points with just under half an hour remaining.
Tellingly, Connacht's momentum was broken up by Bowe's second score as he was put over near the right corner flag by a couple of crisp passes from Jackson and Cave.
Pienaar's missed conversion was followed by a penalty from Connacht replacement Carty, making it 22-13, before Ulster tightened their grip on the game with Best's try from a well-executed lineout maul.
Connacht were far from finished, their sheer desire seeing them get something out of the game. Their bench had the desired impact with John Cooney making a snappy break. After taking Ulster through a few phases, Finlay Bealham and Carty combined to send full-back O'Halloran over in the left corner.
Carty swung over a superb conversion to reduce the arrears to seven points. That sparked a frantic finish from the home side with Robbie Henshaw leading the charge, his deft offload almost putting Poolman in on the right wing. Ulster scrambled well, though, and saw out the result amid a heavy rain shower.