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Manner of hard-fought victory will please Ulster chief after recent woe

Rugby

Jonathan Bradley

Ulster were happy to be home for Christmas last night as they put their recent away travails behind them and got back to winning ways against Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium.

Neil Doak's side, however, had to fight hard throughout for the 13-10 win, especially late on after Connacht pulled themselves to within three points as the final whistle neared.

What will please the Ulster coaches is that, after some defensive struggles during the last month, their side refused to yield in the closing moments and held their concentration right to the death to secure the win.

There was a school of thought that, given their historically poor record in Belfast, this may be the festive fixture that Connacht would target but, whether it was coach Pat Lam, or more likely the powers that be at the IRFU who dictated matters, it was a weakened line-up sent to the Kingspan Stadium.

Robbie Henshaw, after starring for Ireland during November's clean sweep, was given the night off while Rodney Ah You and Kieran Marmion, squad members from Joe Schmidt's panel, were only utilised from the bench.

For the home side, Rory Best and Tommy Bowe were absent in similar circumstances but there were still 10 players capped at Test level in the starting XV.

Despite that, Connacht came out of the blocks quicker and, given the way recent games have gone, Ulster fans could have been forgiven for displaying some nerves.

With the visitors getting the better ball in the opening five minutes, the one consolation for Ulster was that they managed to hold their opponents to just a single Jack Carty penalty.

Paddy Jackson had an opportunity to level the scores minutes later but, having just returned from a shoulder strain, his rustiness was evident during a wayward shot at goal.

With a quarter of an hour gone, however, Jackson did bring parity with a kick directly in front of the posts and the fly-half would be heavily involved in Ulster's try at the beginning of the second quarter.

Callum Black did excellently to win a penalty on the deck and Jackson's kick to touch set up the line-out.

When the maul was halted, Paul Marshall passed to Jackson and, knowing that a significant hit from Dave McSharry was coming, he showed no fear for his recently injured joint and his clever ball inside to Craig Gilroy sent the winger away.

There was still much to do but a series of trademark pirouettes carried Gilroy over the line.

While Ulster had chances to extend their lead, most notably a scrum on the five-metre line that instead brought a penalty against the just introduced Declan Fitzpatrick, they had only a further Jackson penalty to show for their efforts.

When Gilroy was adjudged to have tackled Matt Healy in the air, a contentious call, but one that appeared to be correct, Connacht mauled the subsequent lineout over the whitewash and suddenly just three points separated the two sides.

The pressure came in waves thereafter but defence coach Johnny Bell will be heartened that his system held solid and firm and that the players ground out the narrow, if not convincing win.

The victory carries Ulster back into the top four of the table - and among the prestigious PRO12 play-off spots once again - after they leapfrogged Leinster but a visit to the RDS to face Matt O'Connor's men looms next weekend.

Historically never a particularly happy hunting ground for Ulster, they will take some heart from another somewhat limp performance by the reigning league champions against Munster yesterday evening.

To assume that there will be no response from Leinster to a second defeat of the season at the hands of their old rivals would be naive, however, and Ulster will hardly relish another road trip.

Coming into last night's showdown, they had lost three from four - all of the defeats coming away from the Kingspan Stadium - and they have beaten only the Cardiff Blues when playing outside of BT6 this season.

If they are to maintain any hope of silverware this campaign, then winning away from the friendly and familiar confines of home will soon be an imperative.

Belfast Telegraph

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