Connacht 3 - Ulster 10: Nick Williams snatches win
Connacht 3 - Ulster 10
Fans of defensive rugby were handed a belated Christmas present on Saturday as Ulster battled to a 10-3 win over Connacht at the Sportsground in a game that looked destined for a draw was but was settled by a late try from Nick Williams.
It was a first home defeat of the season in any competition for the westerners, while Les Kiss's side have now won four in a row for the first time since February when they reeled off a quartet of wins in response to the previous month's record defeat to Toulon.
They are once again in the Pro12's play-off positions and the winning of a game that was engrossing if not aesthetically pleasing was built on another solid defensive effort, especially after Pat Lam's men started strongly.
When the game's first points belatedly arrived just beyond the half-hour mark, Paddy Jackson had kicked Ulster into a 3-0 lead but, with both sides well organised throughout, AJ McGinty replied for Connacht with half an hour remaining.
A share of the spoils seemed certain before Williams pushed his way across the whitewash with only three minutes remaining.
For the player, who it was announced last week will depart for Cardiff in the summer, it was a deserved last act of a man-of-the-match performance.
Connacht showed ambition early on when Ulster were pinged at the breakdown and the ball was confidently dispatched into the corner but the visitor's maul defence was strong.
While Kiss's men were stretched, a knock-on from Eoghan Masterson allowed a chance to clear.
An aerial collision between Andrew Trimble and Matt Healy provided the first moment of controversy between the Irish rivals but Peter Fitzgibbon decided the only censure for the Connacht wing would be an Ulster penalty.
Scrum decisions went both ways, with Ulster struggling to gain a platform off their line-out, but both sides were determined.
With Connacht quick to shoot up in defence, often taking man and ball well before the gainline, and using the sideline well Ulster's ball carriers could create little momentum
In a game with points at a premium, Pienaar eschewed the chance of a wholly kickable shot at the posts with 25 minutes gone, a decision that looked all the more rash when his pass found touch rather than Trimble.
Connacht had their own chance to take the lead only moments later but Craig Ronaldson missed a testing kick after Louis Ludik had been pinged for holding on.
As the half edged towards a scoreless conclusion, however, Franco van der Merwe stole a Connacht line-out with the home side transgressing at the ruck.
Jackson slotted between the posts from the resulting penalty for a 3-0 lead.
After the turn Connacht's first chance to level matters came when Williams was caught off his feet, but Ronaldson, faced with a much more straightforward effort than in the first-half, was again off target.
With try opportunities still scarce, Ulster had a real chance to break the game open when a skip pass from Pienaar put Marshall into space but the centre's delivery out to the wing tailed off and Trimble could only knock on when trying to scoop the ball up from his shoelaces.
A break from the increasingly influential Rory Scholes created another opening but his pass inside was read by Bundee Aki.
In what had been a structured contest, a frantic period on the hour mark threatened to turn the game in Connacht's favour.
A line-out in the corner presented Ulster with a real chance to maul their way across the line but the set-piece malfunctioned badly.
With Williams coming off the back, the ball went loose between the half-backs and Connacht were able to fly-kick the ball to safety.
Their counter came to nothing thanks to a knock-on but Luke Marshall's slide tackle in the build-up saw him yellow carded.
Four minutes later AJ MacGinty, the substitute who was at the World Cup with USA, levelled from a penalty and the Dublin-born Eagle had a chance to swing momentum even further in his side's favour but badly missed his touch when aiming for the corner.
With that let-off, Ulster looked to take advantage but their attack was sapped of momentum when Trimble collided with the referee off of Williams' clever inside ball.
The introduction of Paul Marshall saw Ulster's reserve scrum-half provide some probing kicks out of hand, with Jackson also pinning Connacht back but, even restored to 15 men, a draw seemed the most likely outcome until the ball found its way to Scholes in the final minutes.
The wing attacked down the left sideline and his chip and chase forced Healy into conceding a line-out in his own territory.
The subsequent maul collapsed but Ulster had the scrum and the pack held firm.
Williams carried from the base and looked to release Luke Marshall but the centre was stopped just short after making good ground.
The number 8, however, was not to be denied.
His late intervention prevented what would have been Ulster's lowest scoring draw of the professional era - a distinction that still belongs to another December derby and the 2006 visit from Leinster - and the side now have real momentum heading towards Saturday's home clash against of Munster.
Ulster: L Ludik; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Scholes; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Herring (captain), W Herbst; A O'Connor, F van der Merwe, R Diack, S Reidy, N Williams
Replacements: J Andrew, C Black (for Warwick, 43), R Lutton (for Herbst, 50), S Mulholland (for O'Connor, 70), R Wilson (for Reidy, 55), P Marshall (for Pienaar, 68), I Humphreys, S Arnold.
Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; F Bealham, D Heffernan, N White; U Dilane, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (captain), J Connolly, E Masterson.
Replacements: S Delahunt (for Heffernan, 55), R Loughney (for Bealham, 60), R Ah You (for White, 68), A Browne (for Muldowney, 57), S O'Brien (for Masterson), I Porter (for Marmion, 78), AJ MacGinty (for Carty, 57), R Parata (for Ronaldson, 78)
Star man: Nick Williams
Match Rating: 6/10