Ulster’s first game back was not a good one as they fell to a five point defeat at the hands of a well drilled Connacht side, leaving Dan McFarland questioning the mindset of his players.
McFarland’s side looked so rusty I’m surprised they didn’t turn to powder when tackled by the Connacht players. I expected a disjointed performance with lots of errors. What I didn’t expect was Andy Friend’s side to turn up and play like they hadn’t stopped during lockdown.
John Cooney knocked over two penalties either side of a try from John Porch. It was incredibly easy for Connacht to stick Ulster on the back foot and this was evident in their first try. Tom Farrell and Jack Carty combined to make the initial burst into the Ulster 22 giving the western province a position.
From there it was all too easy, a simple pull back flummexed the Ulster defence with Louis Ludik shooting out of the line even though there were two Ulster defenders capable of dealing with the threat of Carty and a simple basketball pass to Porch allowed the fullback to canter over unscathed.
Surprisingly, Ulster only missed eight tackles in the match going to show that it depends on the outcome whether a missed tackle is costly or not. Ulster missed more tackles in the wins against Harlequins and Clermont, which are considered their better performances of the season. Usually the detriment of a missed tackle is minimalised as players are filtering in behind to cover. Instead, Connacht were able to keep the ball alive through offloads, maximising the amount of metres gained.
There were a few pleasing aspects of attacking play on offer from Ulster today. Early on, Ulster had a scrum deep in their 22, slightly right of the centre of the pitch. The ball was zipped away from the set piece with pace, every player took the ball going forward and when it arrived in the hands of Jacob Stockdale, a big boot from the fullback pinned Carty back in his 22 and the resulting kick gave Ulster possession inside the Connacht half. The distance Stockdale gets on his clearance kicks means he creates a viable exit strategy for Ulster.
Connacht extended their lead to eight points with a Kieran Marmion try. New loan signing from Munster, Alex Wootton freed his arms to feed Porch down the left wing. Despite the best efforts of Kieran Treadwell to stop the pass inside to Marmion, he could do nothing to prevent a delicate kick infield which bounced favourably for the Connacht scrum half. Porch used his sevens’ skills to assist Marmion for the second try of the afternoon.
Adam McBurney was held up over the line with a couple of minutes left in the half due to excellent defending from Marmion, the first of two times the little scrum half denied the hooker a try. Ulster had a period of pressure with the resulting in a penalty that was kicked into touch. Neither the lineout or scrum were functioning in the first half and Connacht ended up surviving and holding a 14-6 lead at half time.
Ulster started the second half strongly with regular visits into the Connacht 22 in the first 15 minutes. Time after time an unenforced error let Connacht off the hook, however they eventually crossed with through Stockdale courtesy of a strong Nick Timoney run off the base of the scrum and good hands from Billy Burns.
Similar to Munster last night, Ulster had to work incredibly hard for their scores up against a resolute Connacht defence. On the other hand the Galway side answered within five minutes. Bundee Aki barrelled over the top of Ian Madigan, Alby Mathewson and James Hume on the way to the line.
For Ulster, Marcell Coetzee and Stuart McCloskey gave the side forward ball but often lacked the support to keep the momentum alive. McCloskey broke down the left in the second half but there was no one on hand to support the inside centre who is very capable of offloading.
Nick Timoney scored Ulster’s second try after Ulster exile Johnny Murphy was sin binned for a team infringement making it a one point game with 18 minutes to go. With a man advantage and a large period of the second half spent inside the Connacht 10m line, I thought Ulster would kick on and win the game.
While they did have a couple more attacks, they were nothing more than a flurry. Instead Ulster petered out and finished the game defending their line for the last eight minutes and eventually conceding a try to Jack Aungier.
I’m reluctant to jump to too many conclusions as the lay off has been twice as long as a normal pre-season. Rustiness was inevitable however I find Dan McFarland’s comments after the match concerning regarding the players’ mindset.
I am glad he’s addressed this as we’ve seen in the past, Ulster rock up to winnable games (usually away from home) and suffer a humiliating defeat. This needs to change if Ulster are to end their trophy drought this season, and quickly.
There were a few glimpses today, but Ulster and Dan McFarland have a lot of work to do ahead of Leinster next Saturday and the semi final match the week after against Edinburgh.