As the Rainbow Cup kicked off with a clash between the two teams likely most aggrieved by its existence, Ulster suffered a second home defeat to Connacht in three seasons after the most dramatic of finishes.
More so than any other sides, these provincial rivals would surely have much rather been expending their energy completing the PRO14 season as normal and preparing for play-offs and yet, incredibly, had this entertaining game been played in any other more established competition it would have gone down as an Ulster win.
For the captain’s challenge being trialled in the Rainbow Cup loomed large when, with the clock red, Connacht asked referee Andrew Brace to review what at first had been deemed a match-ending turnover with Ulster leading by 24-21.
Sent to the big screen at Connacht’s prompting, Brace adjudged there had been no release from Mike Lowry in the tackle with the penalty subsequently reversed.
There was still plenty to do from there as the visitors opted against kicking for the draw and instead went to the corner but, playing with penalty advantage, Conor Fitzgerald poked the ball in behind and Peter Sullivan made a despairing grasp for the bouncing ball.
Originally deemed no-try, on second viewing the TMO decreed that the replacement had just managed to dot down before the ball slid across the dead-ball line.
In truth, Connacht were good value for the win at the death, even if it looked as if they’d thrown it away only minutes before when Dave Shanahan put Ulster back into the lead.
With Dan McFarland resting the likes of Jordi Murphy, Stuart McCloskey and Marty Moore with next week’s Challenge Cup semi-final with Leicester in mind, the westerners performance was brimming with energy throughout and they hit a high tempo from the off to take a quick lead.
It was a line-out steal that set the platform for their opening score, the turnover followed by a quick penalty moving the play from the edge of one ‘22’ to the other and Paul Boyle supplying the powerful finish after Caolin Blade had made a sharp half-break.
They seemed set for another close-range try only moments later but Ulster were thankful for Nick Timoney’s intervention as the number eight latched onto the ball after Ultan Dillane’s five-metre carry.
A double movement under the shadow of the Ulster posts saw yet another promising situation come to nothing for Andy Friend’s men and with a quarter gone the hosts will have felt fortunate to be down by only a single score.
Connacht would come to rue those close calls soon after when Ulster, off the back of strong instance of recycling ball from James Hume, worked the ball wide for Jacob Stockdale to score his second try in as many games.
By the half hour mark Dan McFarland’s men would be ahead, Rob Herring grabbing what has become a virtually customary maul try despite Connacht’s admirably early efforts at repelling Ulster’s usually potent set-piece through disruptive work from Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury.
As the second-half began, Will Addison began warming up with more ever-increasing intent, his imminent arrival surely one to pique the interest of the absent Ulster supporters and perhaps even Ireland coach Andy Farrell should his side’s summer tour to the Pacific Islands go ahead as planned.
Before he arrived, though, Ulster would extend their lead.
Again Hume was heavily involved, this time making a scything break through the middle that had Connacht on the hop defensively.
Ulster looked set to take advantage of a scrambling defence only for Jack Carty to jump the passing lane and knock the ball forward. In the confusion, Baloucoune remained alert, scooping the loose ball and finding a looping Billy Burns on his shoulder for the score.
When, despite the try being scored, Carty was still shown the yellow card it represented a worst-case scenario for the hosts and ended a rotten period the number ten who has sent up two wayward kicks in the build-up to his sin-binning.
The ten-point advantage saw McFarland start to call some of those he’ll most heavily rely upon next week ashore, Irish international trio Iain Henderson, Rob Herring and Jacob Stockdale ashore.
It was for the latter that Addison was introduced for his first rugby since the Champions Cup visit of Bath in January of 2020 but it was Connacht replacement Abraham Papali’i who made the quickest impact, barging his way through the attempted tackle of Billy Burns in the build-up to a score for Blade.
Having thought he’d scored in the first-half, there was no doubt this time around as he darted between the oncoming Baloucoune and Addison for the try that, along with the subsequent conversion, made it just a three-point game.
The arrival of Conor Fitzgerald just prior to the hour mark represented a return to a full complement for the westerners after a well-managed sin-bin period. After their purple patch either side of the turn, Ulster had certainly surrendered the front foot back to Connacht by the game’s closing stages and Friend’s side deserved the lead given to them when Blade got a second of the night, wriggling through a gap after Dillane had somehow been held up by Matty Rea.
Had Dave Shanahan’s 73rd minute score, coming off the back of a fine break by fellow replacement Mike Lowry, won Ulster the game it would have felt somewhat smash and grab.
The drama, though, was only really beginning.
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