Five-star Ulster sign off 2019 with bonus point victory over Connacht at sold-out Kingspan
Ulster did what they needed to do in winning their first Irish derby of the season, and their last game of 2019, by seeing off Connacht and scoring five tries to collect maximum points at a sold-out Kingspan.
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The westerners were put to the sword in the second half thanks to tries from the dangerous Robert Baloucoune with skipper Rob Herring, who had just returned from the bin, grabbing the bonus point try and Nick Timoney claiming the fifth.
Alan O’Connor and Billy Burns had grabbed tries in the opening 40 minutes.
All the scores were converted, John Cooney kicking four and Bill Johnston slotting Timoney’s 76th minute try.
It meant that Ulster closed the gap to seven points with Conference A leaders Leinster though the southerners play today at Munster.
It was a tricky opening half for Dan McFarland’s men who led 14-3 thanks to tries from O’Connor and Burns though only some last-ditch defending and Connacht’s failure to take two clear opportunities had kept the westerners to just three points.
Ulster also finished the half without skipper Rob Herring who was yellow-carded and they lost both Marcell Coetzee and Louis Ludik to injury.
Going into the game, Ulster had already made it clear that winning their first interprovincial of the season was very much the desired outcome after last week’s, frankly, expected defeat to Leinster – though the try bonus point was a very welcome development from a visit to the RDS – and November’s loss at Munster.
Seeing off 2019 the right way was also part of the agenda but not a major factor as Ulster, as is the way with home Irish derbies over the festive period, went nearly as full strength as they could to get back to winning ways and build momentum ahead of Munster’s visit next Friday and the return to Europe the week after that.
The game was only three minutes old when Will Addison – back for his first game from his suspension – collected his own chip and put Robert Baloucoune in space down the right. Though the winger, in his first game back from injury, sped away to dot down the pass supplied by Addison had been clearly forward and was then called that way to Connacht’s relief.
The westerners then steadied themselves and got into the game. Marty Moore was pinged for not releasing in the ninth minute though after Dave Heffernan’s break from a subsequent driving maul had seemingly resulted in a try after Caolin Blade dashed over, only to be excellently held up by Baloucoune and Coetzee, they had to be content with a Conor Fitzgerald penalty three minutes later.
It seemed a poor return for their period of pressure which followed Blade’s seemingly nailed-on try and Ulster responded in an appropriate manner eight minutes later.
This time a penalty against Blade was kicked to the corner and though Joe Maksymiw beat Kieran Treadwell to the ball when Rob Herring threw long, O’Connor pounced and was given the score.
Cooney’s conversion put Ulster 7-3 up.
Just after the 20th minute they had their second try. Another missed high kick from Cooney gave Ulster possession and they swung it right where former Ulster prop Paddy McCallister smashed into Coetzee and ended his game with what looked to be a no-arms tackle.
The ball though was kept alive and found its way to Baloucoune who made ground and passed inside to Sean Reidy. The flanker threw and over the top pass to Burns who somehow outstripped the cover to claim the try.
Cooney’s conversion made it 14-3 to the home side just as Ulster were disrupted again as Ludik limped off to be replaced by Craig Gilroy.
Then shortly after Addison’s grubber for Baloucoune was too long, Connacht gathered themselves for a strong finish to the half.
After Luke Marshall was pinged for a seat-belt tackle on John Porch, the westerners then camped on Ulster’s line putting together over 30 phases near or on the line.
With a penalty coming, Addison’s hit on Peter Robb ended Connacht’s huge surge but with the penalty coming, and Rob Herring being yellow-carded, they were still in position and took the scrum with Adam McBurney coming on and Gilroy making way.
A score seemed certain but Conor Fitzgerald’s cross-kick to newly arrived sub Stephen Fitzgerald wasn’t touched down and another chance was lost to the visitors.
They came again though but Ulster survived to lead 14-3 at the break thanks to a turnover from Reidy and Nick Timoney winning a crucial penalty to allow the home side escape to the changing room to regather themselves.
Four minutes in and they had their third try when Addison’s half-break enabled Cooney to feed Timoney whose swift pass to Baloucoune saw the winger surge over. Cooney’s conversion made it 21-3 just before Herring returned.
It looked to drain what life there was left in Connacht and it was no surprise that the bonus point score soon followed with Herring getting it after a penalty to the corner allowed him drive off the maul to score.
Cooney did the needful for his fourth conversion from four and Ulster now led 28-3.
Connacht replacement hooker Shane Delahunt was sin-binned with less than 20 minutes to go and though Ulster failed to score while the visitors had 14 on the field with Timoney crossing with four minutes to go which Johnston converted.
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