Ulster grind out tough win over Connacht to reach PRO14 semi-finals
As Belfast bid farewell to Rory Best and Darren Cave, Ulster kept their eyes focused on the job and reached the semi-finals of the Guinness PRO14 with a gritty performance.
Playing their last games at Kingspan Stadium in front of their home crowd, Best and Cave were the centre of attention, and they still have at least one more game left in an Ulster jersey in the semi-final.
That's after they helped their side grind out a 21-13 win over interprovincial rivals Connacht, who made them work hard for it, in the quarter-final to set up that last-four game with Glasgow Warriors on May 17.
It took Marcell Coetzee's try three minutes from time to get them over the line in a nip-and-tuck game in the second half, with Billy Burns' nerveless conversion ensuring there'd be no nasty ending.
Indeed, Best had a hero's welcome when he led the side out to start the game and it almost seemed like the team fed off that as they roared into an incredible start.
After John Cooney had kicked them into the lead from their first attack with a penalty, they immediately extended that when some brilliant offloading from Coetzee and Kieran Treadwell set Nick Timoney away down the wing and over for the opening try after a quarter of an hour.
It wasn't going to be that easy for the whole game though, and attack quickly had to switch to defence as Connacht replied with some threatening surges into the Ulster 22, however the home defence held firm.
Fly-half Jack Carty did get them on board with a penalty, but Cooney responded on the stroke of half-time with a penalty of his own to take Ulster in eight points ahead.
Things got rather worrying just after the restart, however, when Connacht brought it back to within a point as Jarrad Butler picked off a pass from Burns and set Bundee Aki in under the posts with the offload.
Cooney and Carty traded penalties to leave the gap at a point going into the late stages of the game and it looked like the visitors had all the momentum after turning the game into a contest again.
But Ulster forced themselves into the 22 with five minutes to go and were patient with their build-up and, after several drives at the Connacht line, eventually it was Coetzee there to bulldoze his way over for the crucial score.
Best and Cave play on for one more game.
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Belfast Telegraph Digital