Magners League: Ulster now playing waiting game
Ulster 27 Connacht 16: Ulster kept their Magners League top four finish dream alive last night at Ravenhill, but their failure to add a bonus point may yet prove crucial.
In view of their home record against Connacht, Ulster were firm favourites. In the circumstances it was hardly surprising that the guests’ coach, Eric Elwood, rolled out the biggest of his big guns in the hope of halting a run of failures dating back to November 1960.
With Cardiff Blues’ 29-9 home win against Benetton Treviso the previous night having seen them leapfrog Ospreys and Ulster, pushing them down the table to fifth and fourth spots respectively, Brian McLaughlin’s side certainly did not lack motivation.
Ulster knew they had to win — ideally with a try-scoring bonus for good measure — and with Irish coach Declan Kidney looking on they went on the attack from the start with Simon Danielli doing well to pick a pass up off his toes and feeding Darren Cave who in turn linked with midfield partner Nevin Spence. Great start.
Ulster were buzzing. Captain Rory Best, Ruan Pienaar and Adam D’Arcy produced another slick passage and their impressive opening was duly rewarded when, in the 6th minute, Ian Humphreys, D’Arcy and Cave combined delightfully to release Best who went through to score a gem under the posts.
Humphreys converted and with a try in the bag Ulster were off the mark in pursuit of their target figure of four.
But they lost their way for a time after that. Connacht came back strongly and when their big pack recycled good ball in the Ulster 22, scrum-half Frank Murphy’s pass to his partner Ian Keatley enabled the stand-off to drop a neat Aquinas end goal which made it 7-3.
Connacht continued to make the running, helped somewhat by referee JP Doyle whose repeated ruling in their favour was much to the chagrin of the big home crowd.
Four times in the first half the ERU official, handling his first-ever Magners League game, upset the faithful to the point where they responded to the decisions with derisive slow hand-clapping.
Ulster had lost their early rhythm, with Connacht refusing to let them rediscover it.
In fact, the guests were looking more menacing. An attempted cross-kick by Humphreys succeeded in finding Fionn Carr rather than Craig Gilroy and it required a magnificent tackle by Cave to stop the Connacht wing getting away.
Then Pienaar did well to get back to touch down in-goal as Carr chased a Keatley grubber.
So it was against the run of play that they scored their second try, with D’Arcy getting that after a break-out in which Humphreys was the key man. The out-half converted the score he had made, leaving Ulster a flattering 14-3 to the good and half-way towards that all-important bonus.
But on the stroke of half-time Keatley, who had missed a 22nd minute penalty from just beyond the 10-metre line, added his second of the evening with a well-judged kick from fractionally inside the Ulster half.
He had a chance to reduce the deficit further four minutes after the restart when Dan Tuohy was harshly penalised following an error of judgement by young Gilroy who was caught out having misjudged a Carr up-and-under, but his kick came back off an upright.
Three minutes later, however, Keatley made no mistake – 14-9 and game on with Ulster seemingly becalmed.
Humphreys appeared to have some put much-needed wind in their white sails with a penalty from between half-way and the 10-metres line, making it 17-9, but Ulster were stunned almost at once by try from Connacht hooker Sean Cronin who left the home defence for dead after racing onto a Keatley pass following a line-out.
Keatley’s conversion cut the differential to one point and with so much of Ulster’s play taking them across the pitch rather than over the gain line the crowd’s growing concern became more and more tangible in the latter stages.
Their frustration with their team was matched by anger towards the referee whose bewildering decision-making reduced them to uncharacteristic booing.
Danielli knocked on under the visitors’ crossbar but when the Connacht front row infringed under intense pressure in the resultant scrum, Humphreys was happy to kick the penalty and open up a four-point gap with 11 minutes remaining.
A 75th minute Cave try took them to within one of their target with a lovely score, searing through having taken up a great line and Humphreys maintained his perfect off-the-tee record on the night by converting.
But the fourth try would not come leaving Ulster to see what unfolds when Leinster and Ospreys play away to Aironi and at home to Munster respectively.