Connaught 13 Ulster 30: Four months of hurt over as Ulster finally triumph
The emotional embraces by the Ulster players at the final whistle spoke volumes as the province ended their two-month wait for a victory to move off the bottom of the Magners League with a stunning powerhouse second-half show against a spirited Connacht side at the Sportsground last night.
The palpable relief for the visitors was understandable. You have to go back to April for Ulster's last win on the road, at the now defunct Border Reivers, and this win ends a six-match losing sequence of on the road.
More importantly, it takes Ulster three points clear of their hosts in the head-to-head battle for Heineken Cup qualification next season.
And the Ulster camp and their supporters will now hope the victory, in this turbulent campaign to date, finally marks a genuine turning-point after signs of recovery against Bourgoin last Friday.
Second-half tries by Kieron Dawson, Carlo del Fava and Roger Wilson, all converted by Paddy Wallace who also slotted three penalties, was enough to see off a spirited Connacht side, who gave Ulster a number of scares, most notably when Mel Deane raced over for the home side's only try to steal the lead against the run of play at the start of the second period.
The first-half had been a dire affair, which Ulster edged 6-3 thanks to two Wallace penalties to one by Tim Donnelly.
After a rather shapeless opening some big carries by Justin Fitzpatrick and Rory Best culminated in a penalty for Wallace in the sixth minute.
When Rory Best was penalised for hands in the ruck, Aidan Wynne kicked for the corner and it took some robust defending to repel the home side.
Ulster began to build pressure on the home side but were undone by a couple of costly line-out losses and handling errors, which allowed Connacht to stay out of the danger zone.
The error-count continued as first Conor McPhillips and then Mel Deane were able to pin Ulster back with searching kicks to the corner.
Ulster finally began to win some secure ball from touch by throwing to Neil Best but despite some hard running by Roger Wilson, the visitors could still make little headway because of a lack of precision or poor discipline.
Fortunately for the visitors, Connacht too kept running up cul-de-sacs, unable to convert sustained periods of pressure into points.
And when Simon Danielli hit a good line to breach the first-up defence in a rare moment of incision, Wallace was able to double Ulster's lead with his second penalty in the 32nd minute.
With Wilson continuously breaching the gain-line, Ulster conjured up enough quick ball to cause further damage before the half was out but couldn't find the killer blow with too many passes going astray.
And Connacht were able to punish their profligacy when Tim Donnelly slotted an injury time penalty after sloppy play from Ulster both in clearing their lines and at the line-out again after an important tackle by Tommy Bowe on Deane had disrupted a promising attack by the home side.
Ulster hit a high tempo from the restart but failure to move the ball wide spoiled two overlap opportunities before a knock-on by Matt McCullough saw the attack break down.
The pressure was building however and you sensed that a try by Ulster would be decisive, with Connacht struggling to get out of their half. This season things are never simple with Ulster however and moments after Neil Best was shown a yellow card for deliberately knocking the ball down, Connacht struck.
McPhillips attacked the blindside at rapid speed and a chip with the outside of his boot slid in behind the Ulster defence. Isaac Boss hesitated for a second and the ball seemed to bounce forward off Mark Bartholomeusz. Deane pounced to race over for a try in the 49th minute. Andy Dunne, just on, slotted the conversion.
Yet their celebrations were short-lived. From the restart Deane knocked-on to give Ulster a scrum on the five-metre line and although the visitors lost possession, they scored from the subsequent line-out with a clever move opening up a gap for Dawson to touch down in the 52nd minute.
A superb conversion by Wallace restored Ulster's three-point advantage.
Connacht briefly drew level again when Dunne slotted a penalty but it was cancelled out by Wallace's second two minutes later.
Great lines by Danielli and Wallace got Ulster rumbling forward and after several recyles, Connacht's numbers ran out and Wallace's wide pass put Carlo del Fava over in the corner for Ulster's second try in the 63rd minute, with the out-half again on target with the conversion to stretch the visitors' lead to 10-points.
There was no way back. Wallace was just shy with a long-range penalty attempt before Ulster capped a fine second-half performance when Wilson finished off a break by Danielli for Ulster's third try deep into injury-time, with Wallace's conversion the last play of the match.
Connacht: G Duffy; A Wynne, D Riordan, M Deane, O Treviranus (D Yapp 74); T Donnelly (A Dunne 49), C McPhillips (C O'Loughlin 64); B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Morris; M Swift, A Farley; M McCarthy, J O'Connor, J Muldoon.
Ulster: M Bartholomeusz; T Bowe, A Trimble, P Steinmetz (R Dewey 69), S Danielli; P Wallace, I Boss; J Fitzpatrick, R Best, B Young, M McCullough (R Caldwell 69), C Del Fava, N Best, K Dawson (D Pollock 57), R Wilson.
Referee: (A Rolland)