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Ulster's unbeaten start ended abruptly as five-star Connacht teach them lesson in Aviva drubbing

Connacht 36-11 Ulster


Ulster's Matty Rea is tackled by Matthew Burke, Eoghan Masterson and Dave Heffernan of Connacht (Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland)

Ulster's Matty Rea is tackled by Matthew Burke, Eoghan Masterson and Dave Heffernan of Connacht (Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland)

©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Ulster's Matty Rea is tackled by Matthew Burke, Eoghan Masterson and Dave Heffernan of Connacht (Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland)

Ulster's perfect start to the United Rugby Championship was shattered by Connacht in the Aviva Stadium with the northern province suffering their heaviest league defeat since September of 2020.

A profligate first-half was followed by a desperate second 40 when they were played off the expansive park by their western rivals, who got the upper hand in this fixture for the third time in the last four stagings.

Coming into the weekend, only Munster and Leinster had scored more points than table-topping Ulster, but the side did not cross the whitewash in Dublin until well after the hour mark. By that stage the game was long gone with Connacht having already secured a bonus-point.

Indeed on the night when they welcomed back their international trio of Iain Henderson, Robert Baloucoune and Stuart McCloskey back into the side there was little else to cheer for Dan McFarland's men, who will have plenty of time to stew over this one with four idle weekends between now and another trip to Dublin, this time to face Leinster.

In the opening exchanges both sides bared their teeth at the opposing half-backs. While Connacht were quick to zero in on Nathan Doak at early breakdowns, Jack Carty felt the full force of Dave McCann when gathering Billy Burns' garryowen.

It was the subsequent turnover that saw Ulster pressed up against the opposing line seeking an early score that looked to have eluded them but a penalty called on Iain Henderson was reversed when Connacht thundered into the afters.

Given his displays of kicking prowess since his ascension to the nine jersey, it was no surprise to see Doak knock it over the bar with minimal fuss. Ulster's early lead would feel a lifetime ago by the time of the final whistle.

An Alan O'Connor line-out steal prevented a quick response from the notional hosts, but the men in green would be over the line with just a tick under 12 minutes on the clock.

Andy Friend's outfit were playing with an impressive tempo and pierced the Ulster defence when Paul Boyle offloaded smartly out of the tackle for lock Niall Murray. While Ethan McIlroy made the initial tackle before the line, momentum told and the second row finished well for the first of his side's five tries.

Another Doak penalty kept Ulster in touch, and they almost took the lead when John Porch had a moment to forget, only for James Hume to knock on the ball as he went to gather the Connacht wing's fumble.

Craig Gilroy was lost to injury at the onset of the second quarter, prompting a reshuffle in the back-three with Mike Lowry coming on at full-back and McIlroy moving to the wing but Burns gift-wrapped a second score for Connacht only moments later when his pass out wide was plucked from the air by Mack Hansen to sprint home.

Ulster were rocking on their heels and Connacht stretched their lead further when Jack Carty punished an offside from the tee.

With the maul getting no traction and visits to the '22' far too frequently yielding no return, the northern province were doing little to take the initiative handed them via 10 penalties awarded against Connacht in the first-half and, indeed, it was Ulster ill-discipline that saw them reduced to 14 men first when Alan O'Connor was binned for foul-play.

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The lock's yellow card, for coming in with no arms on Dave Heffernan, would at least yield no double censure thanks to a Stuart McCloksey breakdown poach ten metres from his own line. O'Connor would soon have company on the sideline, his opposing second-row Ultan Dillane shown yellow as Connacht's penalty count continued to tick up and up.

Trailing by two scores for the first time all season, there was plenty for Ulster to mull over at the interval.

Needing a quick response, instead it was Connacht who came out the stronger after the turn, Ulster needing some stout defensive work on their own line to keep the deficit at 11.

With the unstructured game suiting the westerners better, Ulster appeared able to do little to take control of things despite their advantages in both territory and possession.

And as the game wore on, they'd enjoy neither. If the first-half was a game when, Ulster should at least have been closer on the scoreboard, in the second Connacht were markedly superior in every way.

While there were brief moments of resistance - a Henderson rip, a half-break from Hume - each time they felt near any sort of shift in momentum a Connacht forward would produce whatever was required, with Ultan Dillane, Paul Boyle and Conor Oliver all prominent.

When, on the hour mark, a precise strike move off the scrum gave John Porch daylight in the corner, the winger finished well to kill any remote hopes of an ill-deserved comeback.

A second intercept of the game off a Burns' pass, this time it was replacement Diarmuid Kilgallen who was the beneficiary, really brought the near 10,000 crowd to full voice and, when Ulster did finally cross through Bradley Roberts, it was largely immaterial.

All the more so when, with the clock in the red, Mack Hansen had the final say with his side's fifth and final score.

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