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Errors return to haunt Ulster as unbeaten streak is ended with Connacht loss

Connacht 21 Ulster 12

In vain: Ulster’s Johnny McPhillips is unable to prevent Connacht’s Caolin Blade from scoring a try
In vain: Ulster’s Johnny McPhillips is unable to prevent Connacht’s Caolin Blade from scoring a try

By Michael Sadlier

Ulster were witness to more history being made from meeting Connacht but, again, it was an unwanted situation for the men in white.

Connacht's win saw them not only back up October's historic victory at the Kingspan - their first for 58 years - and snare a first ever PRO14 double over Ulster, but it also meant that they have now registered three consecutive victories over the northern province for the first time since the mid-1950s when put alongside last December's game in Galway.

This was Ulster's first defeat in five games and, in fairness, they could have few complaints at the end product though Caolin Blade's second-half try did look as though Jack Carty had been in an offside position when giving the scoring pass, a call the TMO was unable to see clearly.

Even though they fought to the very end, Ulster's overall performance was too regularly punctuated by a depressing collection of defensive errors and set-piece issues while Connacht's back-row, with Sean O'Brien and man of the match Colby Fainga'a to the fore, easily eclipsed the men in white at the breakdown.

The visitors also struggled at half-back and found Bundee Aki simply too strong to contain.

Falling 14-0 down was always going to make life difficult for Ulster - losing Marcell Coetzee to a second-half HIA didn't help, nor did a rejigged backline - and they ended up scoring tries in either half from Angus Kernohan and Jordi Murphy.

What started as an entirely benign evening in Galway rapidly changed as the rain began to fall, making the surface greasy and the ball difficult to handle.

Ulster got off to a dire start and fell 14 clear points behind - their set-piece looking weak and their defence too soft - with just over 20 minutes gone before Kernohan bagged an opportunist try from a Connacht error which was converted by John Cooney to put Dan McFarland's men 14-7 down at half-time.

With Blade putting the westerners 21-7 up soon after the restart, Ulster were always chasing the game.

Connacht drew first blood after 12 minutes after they had won a turnover penalty off an Ulster lineout take and maul.

The westerners won the scrum and then shunted Ulster backwards which led to a penalty. Connacht put the ball in the corner and after Fainga'a took the ball at the front, the home side launched a series of pick and drives up to Ulster's line.

Hooker Shane Delahunt was the one to get over the line after smashing through both Kieran Treadwell and Eric O'Sullivan and Carty converted as the rain began to fall over the Sportsground.

Connacht then came again and after mauling infield, they went for a further series of pick and drives which resulted in Will Addison being pinged for a high shot on Jarrad Butler under the sticks.

The home side opted for a scrum and won a penalty off Marty Moore, prompting the westerners to go again, and with yet another penalty coming off Ulster's crumbling scrum, Blade broke blind and fed Aki and the Ireland centre swatted Johnny McPhillips aside.

Carty added the two points to Aki's 20th-minute try and Ulster were 14-0 down and really struggling.

They needed points and turned down a kickable penalty to go for the corner. Another penalty followed against Denis Buckley and skipper Rob Herring called for the corner again.

Ian Nagle soared and with another penalty advantage coming their way from the maul after Quinn Roux strayed offside, Ulster ran the ball right with Louis Ludik putting Henry Speight, playing his last game for the province, into space.

The Australian was held just short, but Ulster recycled and McPhillips, still using the advantage, put in a cross-kick from right to left which looked far too easy a take for Cian Kelleher.

However, the winger made a mess of it in his in-goal area and in the confusion that followed Kernohan fell on the ball.

Cooney added a tremendous touchline conversion to get the northern province, rather unexpectedly, back in the game after 32 minutes and the half ended with Ulster just seven behind their hosts despite being largely outplayed.

It was imperative that Ulster scored first on the resumption but they didn't as Blade scuttled over after just two minutes.

The score - created by Blade breaking blind - did look controversial as Carty appeared to be ahead of Kyle Godwin's kick ahead before supplying Blade's trail-run.

But the TMO wasn't sure from the angle he saw and the score stood. Carty converted and Ulster were 21-7 down.

Coetzee left for an HIA while Stuart McCloskey then arrived off the bench for Kernohan but McPhillips put the restart out on the full.

From the scrum on halfway, Connacht won another penalty and Carty went for goal though he didn't have the range.

Ulster replaced both O'Sullivan and Moore and shortly afterwards McPhillips was also called ashore with Speight soon leaving injured meaning a serious rejig for McFarland's backline.

And yet Ulster kept battling and put together a huge 16-phase attack on the hour and then got a break when Connacht sub Ultan Dillane was yellow-carded for taking out Murphy at a lineout maul.

Ulster then took full advantage by putting the penalty into the corner and this time their maul worked with Murphy scoring in the 67th minute.

Cooney's tricky conversion would have put Ulster within losing bonus point territory but it went wide.

Even though Nick Timoney knocked on at the restart, Ulster somehow held their line as Connacht went after the bonus point try and the game ended in frantic fashion with both sides chasing possible bonus points but not getting them.

Belfast Telegraph


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