Jacob Stockdale was the hero as his try, coupled with the boot of John Cooney, helped secure a 16-8 victory over interprovincial rivals Connacht at Kingspan Stadium.
Excellent work from Charles Piutau on 56 minutes to gather a kick from Matt Healy started a move which finished with a score from Stockdale to set Ulster on course for the win after last week’s setback against Zebre.
Ulster were poor defensively in Italy, but tonight they signalled their intent early on with a quick pace that allowed both Tommy Bowe and Luke Marshall early tackles which lifted the crowd. Attacking wise, Ulster flooded the midfield with dummy runners and attacked Connacht on the outside to some avail. Despite a bare scoreboard after 20 minutes, Ulster were on top.
John Cooney knocked over a penalty with 29 minutes gone to break the deadlock. Ulster created plenty of attacking opportunities in the opening half hour but handling errors kept the hosts at bay and the frustration was evident on the faces of the supporters. Ulster’s poor control in the final quarter of the pitch allowed Connacht to grow in confidence. Bundee Aki wriggled free of the Ulster tacklers to burst into the Ulster 22. The visitors capitalized on Aki’s good work through hooker, Tom McCartney who score the first try of the game with five minutes left in the first half.
Somehow, despite the large majority of territory and possession and plenty of chances created, Ulster found themselves 5-3 down at the end of the first half.
Ulster started the second half with two mistakes to hand Connacht the advantage. Ulster recovered, however and regained the lead thanks to strong running from Iain Henderson. The forwards fashioned a good position, forcing Connacht to concede the penalty and allow John Cooney to take the score to 6-5.
A controversial penalty was awarded to Connacht much to the dismay of the Ulster faithful and Jack Carty converted to take the game to 8-6. John Cooney responded with a penalty before Charles Piutau and Jacob Stockdale combined for a wonderful try. The Kiwi gathered a loose kick from Matt Healy and allowed Stockdale to carve a hole up the middle of the pitch. The pair exchanged passes and Stockdale jogged under the sticks for the score.
Ulster found another gear after Stockdale’s score resulting in an increased linespeed that put Connacht under pressure and Ulster’s ball carriers began to make a substantial amount of yards. Rodney Ah You, Jacob Stockdale and Rob Herring lead from the front with massive tackles to prevent Connacht from gaining any momentum.
Ulster pushed for a second try in the last 15 minutes but, like the first half, couldn’t find the elusive pass to seal the game. Connacht had a chance seven metres out from the Ulster line with four minutes remaining. Intense pressure forced Jean Deysel to concede the penalty and he was sent to the sin bin by Andrew Brace. Stout defence for the remaining few minutes will please the coaching staff and the game culminated in Louis Ludik and Christian Lealiifano forcing a Connacht mistake. Ulster held on to record a narrow 16-8 win.
It was a fascinating game and Ulster combined the magnificent with the mind boggling. Jacob Stockdale adds another man of the match award to his collection but praise must also go to Kieran Treadwell and Iain Henderson. The latter recaptured some of the form shown earlier in his career in the last half hour through strong carrying and tackles that put Connacht on the back foot. Treadwell followed in the footsteps of the Lions’ player and also poached a Connacht lineout on Ulster’s 5 metre line. If both continue their good form, it will go along way to replace Marcell Coetzee
Ulster were not in top gear for most of the match but done enough to drag themselves over the line. The Aviva Premiership finalists, Wasps visit Kingspan Stadium next week and while the Coventry based side have not had a great start to the season, Ulster will know that a similar performance will not be enough to topple Wasps.
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Christian Lealiifano, John Cooney; Kyle McCall, Rob Herring, Wiehahn Herbst, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Jean Deysel. Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Rodney Ah You, Robbie Diack, Sean Reidy, Paul Marshall, Peter Nelson, Louis Ludik.