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Ulster one win away from PRO12 play-off after Connacht victory

Connacht 20-27 Ulster

By Michael Sadlier

So, five points bagged and even though Ulster were nudged down a place into third - on points differential after Munster's demolition of Edinburgh - there was no shaking off the series of unusual events seen in this game.

First, there was the confusing stand-off just prior to kick-off when both sides insisted that they were the ones starting into the gale before Rory Best yielded.

Then, in the second half, we had the sight of referee Nigel Owens being accidentally flattened by Iain Henderson and a short period of anarchy before anyone realised that he was in no position to officiate.

Owens required attention but was thankfully able to carry on.

And, at the end, there was further head-scratching over the man of the match with first Dan Tuohy then Franco van der Merwe being announced as the winner.

The mighty Henderson, who departed after the hour, double-try scorer Tommy Bowe or even try-scorer and turnover poacher par excellence Best would have been the more orthodox choice but it seemed a fitting end to a bizarre afternoon.

Of more vital importance was the fact that Ulster had extracted the maximum return with their try bonus and, in tandem with Leinster's defeat to Dragons yesterday, ensured a play-off for Neil Doak's men should they beat their inter-provincial rivals in two weeks' time.

And though it was by no means a polished performance - there were missed tackles and some less than impressive set-pieces - this five-try showing proved an efficient exercise in re-integrating Bowe, Best and Jared Payne back into the starting side, as well as Chris Henry.

Their experience made a difference, with Best doing notable work while Paddy Jackson's distribution and eye for space also played a part in helping create Louis Ludik's opening touchdown and Craig Gilroy's, with the latter keeping his scoring streak going - five tries in four games - to stay the PRO12's top scorer with 10 this campaign.

And yet Connacht could have snatched a draw had the pass thrown by Robbie Henshaw - who was prominent in attack in his duel with Payne - to Danie Poolman been held which could have left Ruan Pienaar disconsolate after missing five from six kicks in what were challenging conditions.

At least they now have two home games against Leinster and Munster - though with two-week breaks - in their sights as well as the incentive of a home semi-final.

"It was great to be back," Bowe admitted of being in an Ulster shirt again.

"We are delighted with this (win) and we had a real focus on this match with the three back-to-back inter-pros starting here."

As for his brace of tries in his first game back with Ulster after the Six Nations, Bowe paid tribute to the forwards for having created the opportunities for him to make the corner in either half.

"The pack were excellent and gave us the sort of ball that as backs we want to play off.

"I was just fortunate enough (to score) and the back three all got in for a score which was a good day for us," Bowe added.

After the confusion prior to kick-off, Ulster struck early with Ludik's fourth-minute score but then they didn't add to that until late in the half when first Bowe and then Gilroy crossed the line with only the latter's being converted.

Ulster led 17-0 as they turned with the wind now at their backs, but Connacht closed this to a mere seven points after Matt Healy's early try was followed by a Miah Nikora conversion and penalty.

But with the pressure rising, Bowe crossed again for the bonus score before Best got on the end of a driving maul. Ulster now led 27-13 - Jack Carty had kicked a penalty for the hosts - but then survived a nervy finish after Carty superbly converted Tiernan O'Halloran's 70th-minute try.

So, a vital bonus win for Ulster - and a key bonus defeat for Champions Cup chasing Connacht - allowing the visitors to leave Galway well satisfied and with only Ludik (bruised ribs) and Darren Cave (tightened hamstring) as their most obvious injury concerns.



CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki (D Leader 69), M Healy; M Nikora (J Carty 60), K Marmion (J Cooney 68); D Buckley (R Loughney 69), T McCartney (S Delahunt 69), R Ah You (F Bealham 69), Q Roux (U Dillane 52), A Muldowney, J Muldoon (capt), G Naoupu (E McKeon 52), E Masterson

ULSTER: L Ludik (S McCloskey 57); T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave (I Humphreys 75), C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black (A Warwick 75), R Best (capt), W Herbst (B Ross 65), D Touhy, F van der Merwe, I Henderson (R Diack 65), R Wilson, C Henry

Match rating: 8/10

Man of the match: Iain Henderson (above)

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)

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