Dominant Ulster blow Connacht away
Ulster 23-7 Connacht
The Ulster squad's turkey dinner will taste all the sweeter tomorrow after they kicked off their festive slate with a 23-7 win over inter-provincial rivals Connacht at Kingspan Stadium.
It was hardly a contest that would be described as a Christmas cracker but Les Kiss's men kept their visitors at arm's length throughout, scoring a try in each half through Stuart McCloskey and Clive Ross.
And with Paddy Jackson keeping the scoreboard ticking over off the tee, it was all Ulster would need in a game where Connacht - without a win in Belfast since 1960 - were held without a point until virtually the final quarter.
A seventh league win of the season, the result lifted the province back into the PRO12's top four ahead of back-to-back away games either side of the New Year with two domestic wins in succession easing the pressure on a side who suffered three straight losses in October.
Looking to erase the bitter taste of last weekend's European trip to Clermont, it was not a game that got off to a quick start.
With six changes made to the Ulster side - all while retaining their core internationals despite being in Ireland camp earlier this week - Kiss had done his best to manage the short turnaround from the Stade Marcel Michelin but there was little his opposite number Pat Lam could do with a depleted panel that lost Bundee Aki to a long-term injury during the week.
The winds from Storm Barbara that had howled through Belfast during the afternoon had eased somewhat by the time the players emerged from the tunnel but a light rain fell as the game kicked-off.
With handling errors and a handful of injury stoppages robbing the game of flow, the Ulster set-piece, the product of a much-changed pack, gained some early headway, winning a scrum against the head, while both Iain Henderson and Kieran Treadwell stole Connacht ball at the lineout.
And when the opening did come, it was through pressure from the forwards, a series of pick and goes resulting in Dave Heffernan getting caught offside.
With a quarter gone, Jackson had no problem with the penalty.
Knock-ons would give Ulster's new look tight-five plenty of opportunity to show their worth and it was from a scrum that, ultimately, they created their first try.
Winning a penalty off the set-piece inside their own 22, the hosts went to touch and, when Henderson again claimed the lineout, the ball was sent wide at pace. The chance appeared to be gone when Charles Piutau couldn't find the space to set Louis Ludik away but Ruan Pienaar, sensing space on the blindside, quickly gathered and put McCloskey over in the corner. Jackson's conversion gave Ulster a 10 point lead.
Things got better when, five minutes before half-time, Tiernan O'Halloran lost a ball in flight to gift Ulster the territory to force Connacht into another penalty concession.
Kiss's men, with another restart malfunction, almost gifted the points straight back but George Clancy's call of crossing against the visitors brought an end to the half.
With the game still struggling to spark into life, Piutau injected a sense of excitement with a solo break through the line.
Pienaar poked the ball through but, off a Connacht man, meaning Kieran Marmion's dot down beyond his own try line gave Ulster a scrum five.
Ulster were right back where they started when Pienaar was held up over the line, but this time they would force their way over; Clive Ross slipping through the Connacht rearguard for his first try for the side.
With a 20-point lead following the conversion, Kiss looked to his bench, calling on Paul Marshall and Darren Cave, but the margin would not last long.
Connacht attacked quickly from a Rodney Ah You turnover and, when Matt Healy slipped off Piutau's tackle, Marmion popped the ball up for half-back partner Jack Carty to score.
The changes kept coming from both sides and it was from a front-row of three replacements that Ulster ensured they would grab the seemingly important next score, earning a straightforward penalty off another scrum for Jackson to knock over.
Kicks in behind would threaten Connacht's line in the closing stages but neither Ludik nor Paul Marshall could gather before stepping into touch in a game that saw Connacht finish with 14 men after substitute Ultan Dillane was forced off injured.
With eight days to wait before their next game, a trip to the RDS to face Leinster on New Year's Eve, how Ulster manage the contest with Leo Cullen's men will no doubt be pondered throughout Christmas Day in the Kiss household, with the Director of Rugby stating earlier this week that he would be under no IRFU restrictions in terms of festive selections.
With Leinster having selected a strong - but far from full-strength - side to face Munster on Boxing Day, you can be sure last season's beaten finalists will be ready and waiting in Ulster's most unhappy of hunting grounds.
ULSTER: C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Best (capt), R Ah You; K Treadwell, I Henderson; C Ross, C Henry, R Wilson
REPLACEMENTS: R Herring (for Best, 66), C Black (for Warwick, 56), W Herbst (for Ah You, 56), F van der Merwe (for Ross, 68), S Reidy (for Wilson, 40), P Marshall (for Pienaar, 53), D Cave (for Marshall, 53), T Bowe (for McCloskey, 73).
CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, D Poolman, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; Q Roux, J Cannon; S O'Brien, N Fox-Matamua, J Muldoon (capt)
REPLACEMENTS: S Delahunt (for Heffernan, 66) T McCartney (for Buckley, 75), JP Cooney (for Bealham, 25), U Dillane (for Roux, 53) , E McKeon (for Muldoon, 66) , C Blade (for Marmion, 65), C Gaffney (for Poolman, 36), N Dawai (for Parata, 62)
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Man of the match: Iain Henderson
Match Rating: 6/10