Belfast Telegraph

Ulster still in hunt after thrilling win over Connacht at Kingspan

Ulster 18-10 Connacht

By Jonathan Bradley

In a game billed as make-or-break for their season, Ulster got a much-needed win against Connacht at Kingspan Stadium.

A try in either half and eight points from the boot of Paddy Jackson produced the required result, even if the hosts could not add to their lead when the league leaders were reduced to 13 men in the final stages.

The victory, temporarily at least, lifts the province back into the top four and the play-off places ahead of their final three games of the Pro12 campaign, but they could be left counting the cost of their endeavours after losing both centres, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall to injury.

Pat Lam's side arrived undermanned, and struggling for numbers at out-half and full-back, but it was still a determined display despite their failure to end a winless run in Belfast that stretches back to November 1960.

Keen to run the ball from deep, their adventure cost them early when hooker Tom McCartney came in at the side and Jackson punished the error in front of the posts.

There was similar risk taking soon after, going for the corner rather than a shot at goal, with Bundee Aki's pass for Matt Healy loose and sending Craig Gilroy streaking upfield. A despairing tackle from Healy halted the break but, when Ruan Pienaar pinned the visitors deep in their own territory, another penalty at the breakdown saw Jackson double Ulster's lead.

With the game in its second quarter, Connacht enjoyed a promising spell but Robbie Henshaw was pinged for holding on and a second penalty in quick succession would bring the first try.

John Muldoon was caught coming in at the side and this time it was Ulster's turn to reject a shot at the posts.

At the tail of the lineout, Franco van der Merwe rose high to corral Rory Best's throw and, while the maul looked to be running out of steam, Ulster's forwards gained some momentum and, ably assisted by Pienaar and McCloskey, drove their captain over the line.

Jackson's conversion came back off the post but the 11-0 lead was a satisfactory return for the opening half-hour.

As Ulster pressed for a second try, Pete Browne was called for holding on and while, the hosts won the ball back, Pienaar's box kick was gathered by Robbie Henshaw.

Henderson got fingertips to the full-back's kick and the bouncing ball was gathered by Muldoon.

Pienaar chased down the flanker but the pass inside sent scrum-half John Cooney into the clear only for Jared Payne to save the try with a covering tackle.

With the half-time whistle imminent, out-half Shane O'Leary opened Connacht's account with a penalty following an Ulster offside.

Les Kiss's men started with real intent in the second-half and seemed set to go over after multiple phases only for Browne to get caught off his feet, however, Gilroy batted the ball infield to stop Connacht making touch and was soon over for Ulster's second. There was clever play from Jackson in the build-up but it was Payne's offload out of the tackle that made the score for his left wing.

Far from having things all their own way Ulster would not score again and Trimble was soon in the bin for an intentional knock-on.

With matters becoming feisty, Ulster's undermanned defence couldn't hold out for long as substitute Caolan Blade scored a try.

With the conversion making it an eight-point game, Trimble returned and, back to a full complement, Ulster were again able to get their hands on the ball.

Having opened his Ulster account for the season in the first-half, Best was nearly over again but was stopped short by a brave intervention from Healy, the collision sending the home skipper off for an HIA assessment,

With 10 minutes remaining, and having already been warned, Connacht were shown a yellow card after O'Leary's high tackle on Gilroy. Connacht were reduced further when O'Brien was binned, but their defence held firm without ever looking like fighting back to secure a losing bonus. For Ulster a welcome win, but to make the play-offs results elsewhere need to go their way.

Belfast Telegraph


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