Connacht 30 - 25 Ulster: Winning run halted by a champion display
Ulster were not quite knocked from their top of the table perch at the Sportsground last night but certainly still hit the ground with a bump after Connacht enjoyed a rare 30-25 victory over their northern neighbours.
With the hosts back to showing the form that brought them the Guinness PRO12 last year, Ulster could not overcome a sloppy first-half showing that saw them ship three tries. While they managed a trio of their own, Gilroy crossing in the first 40 before Rory Best and Jared Payne produced a quick-fire double after the turn, man-of-the-match Cian Kelleher secured the spoils after his second of the night.
Ulster thought they had risen from the canvas for a second time when Paddy Jackson went over only for the late effort to be ruled out.
In truth however, especially after such an emphatic start, the men in green were good value for the win that halted Ulster's run of five consecutive victories.
Against what had been the PRO12's meanest defence coming into the contest, Connacht, like Ospreys a week prior, rocked Ulster with an early try when good footwork from Jack Carty saw him slip through.
With the unmatched physicality of Bundee Aki coupled with the host's superior work at the ruck, Ulster lacked any momentum with ball in hand while missed tackles continued to gift-wrap opportunities even after Jackson settled the side with a penalty.
Matters worsened with 24 minutes on the clock when Bundee Aki barrelled forwards to set his side on the front foot. When full-back Tiernan O'Halloran floated a pass just over the out-stretched fingertips of his opposite number Louis Ludik, the impressive Cian Kelleher finished well in the corner before James Connolly crashed over from close range for a second try in as many minutes.
It was the first time that Ulster had shipped three times in a game this season, and the fact that it came in only the 26th minute summed up their start.
A rare spell of pressure yielded four penalties in quick succession, and a yellow card for Belfast-born, Methody alumni Conor Carey, and while the third attempt at a maul in the corner was scrappy, Ulster eventually worked Craig Gilroy over in the corner.
Despite the card, Connacht secured the last points of the half with a penalty.
Darren Cave did not emerge after the turn causing a re-jig in the backline, but whatever Kiss said to his charges at the break had the desired effect as the league leaders catapulted out of the blocks.
With the maul instantly looking more effective, a high tackle from Andrew Browne saw Ulster go to the corner and Rory Best (below) muscle over.
When Ulster attacked from a line-out only moments later, Tommy Bowe, who had been enduring a quiet return to the starting line-up, burst through a gap in trademark fashion and left Payne with a straightforward finish.
When Jackson converted, the game was improbably all square. On their heels, Connacht composed themselves to score the game's next eight points.
Kelleher's second came with Ulster again lacking numbers out wide and a Carty penalty saw their lead stretch to eight.
A Jackson penalty brought Ulster back into losing bonus point range but the game's conclusion hinged in the 72nd minute. With Payne opting to send Ulster to the corner rather than give Jackson a shot at the posts, fortune failed to favour the brave when the out-half's scoring effort was ruled out for crossing and it was Connacht who head into Champions Cup action with a win.
Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, C Blade; F Bealham, D Heffernan, C Carey, U Dillane, A Browne, E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon (c). Replacement: S Delahunt (for Heffernan, 73), R Loughney (for Carey, 60), JP Cooney (for Bealham, 60), L Stevenson (for Browne, 68), J Connolly (for McKeon, 8), S Kerins, S O'Leary (for Carty, 71), S Ili
Ulster: J Payne (c); T Bowe, L Ludik, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Best, R Ah You, R Diack, P Browne, I Henderson, C Ross, R Wilson. Replacements: R Herring(for best, 62), A Warwick (for Black, 57), R Kane (Ah You, 56), K Treadwell (for Browne, 50), S Reidy (for Wilson, 54), D Shanahan, B Herron (for Ludik, 63), R Lyttle (for Cave, 40)
Referee: Gary Conway
Man of the match: Cian Kelleher
Match Rating: 7/10