Connacht inflict a record 44-16 defeat on an injury-stricken Ulster side in the first of three inter-provincial matches in the Guinness PRO14 over the Christmas period.

Ulster capitulated under Connacht pressure as the home side ran in six tries, including a brace from Ultan Dillane. Craig Gilroy and Rob Lyttle grabbed consolation tries for Ulster in the last 10 minutes. The loss and Edinburgh’s shock win over Glasgow, moves Richard Cockerill’s men to within three points of the Ulstermen in Conference B.

Ulster found themselves 5-0 down inside 5 minutes without laying a finger on the ball through an Eoghan Masterson try. Connacht found it too easy to run around Ulster’s narrow defence all night and the away side had no answer for Connacht’s ball handling skills.

Bundee Aki scored Connacht’s second try after 7 minutes. Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy capitalised on a poor Ulster kick chase. Ulster aborted their defensive duties around the fringes of the ruck to allow Kieran Marmion through and he popped to Aki who had enough strength to power over.

John Cooney got Ulster on the scoreboard in the 22nd minute with a penalty, but Tiernan O’Halloran scored Connacht’s third try after another error at the restart. O’Halloran broke the Ulster line after Matt Healy to cross the line. Restarts remain a major concern for Ulster and on several occasions this year, the opposition has capitalised on Ulster’s sloppiness.

John Cooney added a second penalty for Ulster, but was cancelled out by a Jack Carty penalty leaving the score 20-6 at the break. Ulster struggled to reach the halfway line let alone the Connacht 22m line in the first half and when they did have possession of the ball, Ulster’s disjointed back-line looked clueless and devoid of ideas.

Unfortunately it was more of the same in the second half. From the restart Connacht continued where they left off making very easy yards into the Ulster 22m line. Andrew Warwick saw yellow six minutes into the half and Carty added another penalty. The bonus point try followed closely after a yellow card for Louis Ludik. Ultan Dillane emerged from the bottom of the rolling maul with the ball.

Jarrad Butler added Connacht’s fifth try on the hour mark before Craig Gilroy grabbed the first of two consolation tries. Dillane scored his second try after Eoin Griffin picked off a Paul Marshall pass and the Irish international converted a length of the field run to score his side’s sixth try. Rob Lyttle crossed at the end of the match to make the scoreline seem slightly less embarrassing.

Unlike last week where Ulster were impressive with the ball in hand, last night they struggled to piece together any meaningful passages of play. A large amount of changes were made, mostly due to injury, which hindered the cohesiveness of the side but this doesn’t explain the passive defensive line speed that O’Halloran, Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun exploited. Les Kiss will face some tough questions in the media over Ulster’s defence but four of the tries conceded were down to individual errors.

A major worry was the way Ulster allowed Connacht’s pack to bully them up front. The home side had complete dominance in the maul, which resulted in two tries and were allowed to slow down the Ulster ball at the ruck. Every short carry Connacht made, gained yards yet Ulster could not get any go-forward ball. Too many experienced players failed to show up in both the forwards and the backs.

There weren’t many positives in what was comfortably Ulster’s worst performance of the season but the younger players stood up to the challenge in the second half. Johnny McPhillips made his first appearance in the senior jersey and looked assured amongst the patched-together side. He provided a stabbed kick through which nearly resulted in a try for Louis Ludik and was also sharp to spot a potential break. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of the Irish U20 international in the coming weeks.

With a growing injury list, the matches don’t get any easier for Ulster. Munster are welcomed to Kingspan on New Year’s Day while Leinster, Wasps and La Rochelle are the opposition in the near future. Ulster could be staring down the barrel of five straight defeats.

Ulster: Jacob Stockdale, Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Peter Nelson, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, John Andrew, Wiehahn Herbst, Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.