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Neil Doak hails Ulster's resolute display of character


Breaking through: Craig Gilroy finds space and evades Connacht attention to score Ulster’s try at the Kingspan Stadium

Breaking through: Craig Gilroy finds space and evades Connacht attention to score Ulster’s try at the Kingspan Stadium

Breaking through: Craig Gilroy finds space and evades Connacht attention to score Ulster’s try at the Kingspan Stadium

It was a throwaway line but it at least lifted the mood at a pretty downbeat post-match gathering after what had been a horrible game played out on yet another miserable night of weather.

Yes, festive cheer was in short supply after Ulster's first of two inter-provincials over the holiday period had seen them slug it out and, thankfully, beat an obdurate Connacht on an evening full of effort and error from both sides. But back to the comedy moment.

Man of the match Rob Herring was asked if he thought Roger Wilson's late departure with a shoulder issue might have resulted in him reprising his debut cap for Ireland last summer in Argentina when he had come on late but filled in as flanker.

"Yes, I was half expecting to be put on the flank, but I stuck it out at hooker and was happy with that," said Herring, who stayed in the front row while reserve hooker John Andrew joined the back row.

"You're playing seven next week," Neil Doak then quipped to much laughter though Herring didn't seem entirely sure that his coach was joking and, frankly, who could blame him with Ulster's current injury woes in the back row.

Other than that, there wasn't a whole heap to be said. Ulster had grafted and grunted their way to a win which had halted the worrying possibility of them losing four from five in both Europe and the PRO12, and rather more damagingly, having been beaten in three consecutive league games going back to the narrow loss at Munster last month.

And Ulster did it off the back of the greater security afforded to them from their set-piece with Wiehahn Herbst's return helping give the scrums that bit of extra strength while the lineouts - and, in turn, the driving maul - were also a shade more accurate though Doak was clearly less than pleased at referee John Lacey's overseeing of Connacht's defending of said mauls.

Mind you, the concession of a second-half scrum penalty from a five-metre put-in, after Connacht had messed up a lineout and Wilson had emptied Jack Carty over the line to give Ulster a great attacking platform when the score was still 10-3 to the home side, will not have been pleasing either.

On a difficult night to play, set-pieces were always going to hold sway and had Paddy Jackson - playing his first game since last month and taking time to find his touch - just been that bit sharper with both his tactical kicking and shooting from the tee, Ulster would have edged this one with more room to spare.

But, as Doak said, it was a case of "job done" and the four points moved Ulster back up into fourth, trading places with Leinster - their next opponents on Saturday at the RDS - who were seen off at Munster earlier on Boxing Day.

"To be fair to our guys, coming in off the back of the two losses showed great character," Doak said.

"When you look at the game, I thought we were pretty dominant but didn't get the just rewards to be honest," he added, though his opposite number Pat Lam hardly agreed with that assessment.

Never mind that Connacht took their first losing bonus away from Belfast - and came close to an historic first victory in 54 years north of the border - this was all about Ulster doing whatever it took to win to not only restore their self-belief but also keep plugging away at staying in the play-off mix.

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At least there was one moment to savour and no it wasn't Rory McIlroy having to deal with 'Sweet Caroline' being played on his half-time lap of honour, though as one man pointed out, the sight of the Claret Jug might well be the only silverware brought to the ground this season. The one memorable happening during the game was created by Craig Gilroy's try, which came midway through the first half.

Funnily enough, it came off a driving maul with Jackson's pass hitting Gilroy's angled run perfectly though how the winger managed to then dance and pirouette past four Connacht defenders to score is sure to be brought up at Lam's analysis session.

"A few standard spins," is how Gilroy described his moment. "It was a nice play and the forwards got it going and I got the inside ball and I was just glad to get over."

He was probably also rather surprised to have made it but if anyone can find an opening when one doesn't appear to be on offer then Gilroy is your man, though the line bust made by Stuart Olding - who started due to Luke Marshall's illness - was also notable on a night when the cold and damp were predominant.

"Conditions weren't great," he added, "but I thought we did well and I don't think the scoreline was a fair assessment of the game.

"It was good to get the victory and it should give us a bit of a confidence boost for going down to Dublin next week," said Gilroy.

Ulster will be hoping to have Rory Best and Tommy Bowe back from Ireland camp, and possibly Jared Payne and Ruan Pienaar available for Saturday, while Leinster will also be aiming to have more of their front-liners on show as well.

Anyway, things are back on track and now Ulster go in search of an away win and two victories on the bounce. Now that would be something.

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