A clinical performance from Ulster saw Ulster run in five tries against Andy Friend’s Connacht side.
Alan O’Connor opened the Ulster account while Billy Burns added a second try midway through the first half. Robert Baloucoune and Rob Herring secured the bonus point after 50 minutes while a late Nick Timoney effort added some gloss to the score line.
The 14-3 scoreline at half time wasn’t perhaps a true reflection of the first half. Connacht had 59% of possession and 67% of the territory in the opening forty, forcing Ulster to put in over 150 tackles. With a man advantage at the end of the half due to Rob Herring’s yellow card, Connacht failed to cross the whitewash from a five metre scrum right of centre on the pitch.
It was Connacht who opened the scoring however with Conor Fitzgerald kicking a penalty after 12 minutes. A fortuitous bounce of the ball off a lost five metre lineout gave O’Connor Ulster’s first score.
Lineout was an issue all night with Ulster only winning nine out of 15, by far their worst return so far this season. At least three of those lost lineouts were within seven metres of the Connacht line showing that Ulster did leave a few points on the pitch tonight.
Ulster didn’t utilise their kicking game in the same way that they’ve done in previous weeks. Cross kicks have achieved a lot of joy for Ulster however they were parked to the side for this match with John Cooney and Burns opting for Garryowen kicks targeting Tiernan O’Halloran and Kyle Godwin.
This brought about the second try five minutes later. Louis Ludik managed to force the knock on from O’Halloran and after a barnstorming run from Marcell Coetzee freed up Will Addison and Baloucoune on the right wing, the two combined before putting Burns through for his second try of the season.
The last ten minutes saw Ulster camped on their own line, defending wave after wave of Connacht attack. Ulster’s back row of Timoney, Sean Reidy and Matty Rea appeared to be everywhere and involved in every phase of play whether it putting in the tackle or getting over the ball to slow it down.
One passage lasted over 30 phases and culminated in a super Addison tackle to force a knock on. Though Ulster weren’t off the hook as Herring was shown a yellow card for off side. In the end Ulster denied Connacht and went in at half time 11 points up thanks to a combined effort at the breakdown from Reidy and Timoney.
Failure to get the try at the end of the half took the stuffing out of Connacht and this showed with their second half performance. A Blade box kick went straight out handing Ulster possession outside the 22. Although the lineout didn’t go to plan, ball was recovered and a break from Addison created space for Cooney and Timoney to put Baloucoune in for the score.
Herring added the bonus point try ten minutes after the restart and sealed the victory against a depleted Connacht side. As expected Ulster eased off once the bonus point was scored leading to fairly dull remaining 30 minutes. While it would have been nice for Ulster to score another two or three tries, crucially nobody else was added to the casualty list that featured Ludik and Coetzee from this match.
Timoney popped up to score a fifth try with less than three minutes remaining. Although the tempo dropped in attack after the bonus point was scored, Ulster were no less ferocious in defence. Craig Gilroy shot out of the line to hit his man behind the gainline on two occasions while Connacht were limited to just three clean breaks all evening.
Reidy was awarded man of the match by Andrew Trimble and he was exceptional. He put in 26 tackles without loss and was at the heart of a number of turnovers whether that’s counter-rucking or getting over the ball.
Burns had a solid debut season in the white jersey but has taken his game to the next level this season. There’s still probably a few players ahead of him in the pecking order, but Cooney has shown that performances can catapult your name up the reckoning.
Addison made 123m off 24 carries, beating five defenders and making four clean breaks in the process. He had a taste of action under Joe Schmidt but with a new coach at the helm, Addison’s name will be hard to leave out of the matchday squad.
Since the arrival of Dan McFarland, the performances of Ulster’s forwards have taken an upward turn. In particular O’Connor and Kieran Treadwell are key players with the latter often popping up with a big tackle or rampaging carry.
That’s six points from a possible ten in the interpros so far – a fantastic return with a home match to play. There’s plenty of reasons to be cheerful from an Ulster perspective. With the internationals returning for Munster, the final interpro will be a colossal battle before attention turns to a trip to the Stade Marcel-Michelin.