Ulster lose their second home match to Connacht in as many years as Peter Sullivan dotted down after a Conor Fitzgerald kick in the final play of the game.
The main talking point of the game was Connacht’s use of the captain’s challenge to overturn a decision which allowed them one last attack in the game. On first glance it looked like Kieran Marmion had lost the ball in contact but when it was referred, Michael Lowry had stripped him on the floor with the challenge enabling Connacht to kick possession in to the Ulster 22m.
Jacob Stockdale, Rob Herring, Billy Burns and Dave Shanahan were on the scoresheet for Ulster in what was the 12th match this season where the side has scored four tries or more.
Ulster (12) 24
TRY: Jacob Stockdale, Rob Herring, Billy Burns, Dave Shanahan
CON: John Cooney, Michael Lowry
Connacht (7) 26
TRY: Paul Boyle, Caolin Blade (2), Peter Sullivan
CON: Jack Carty, Tom Daly (2)
While the supporters have had their eyes firmly fixated on next week’s Challenge Cup tie with Leicester Tigers, I don’t think the same can be said of the players, however there were times they were incredibly inaccurate so we could have been forgiven if we thought the focus was not all there.
Connacht made the better start between the sides, taking advantage of Ulster’s attempted soak tackles to break the gain line. Seven carries broke the gainline, allowing Andy Friend‘s side to gain 30 metres, bringing play up to the goal line. Paul Boyle spotted gaps between Ulster’s pillar and guard defence to reach over for the opening try.
Jack Carty didn’t have his best game in a green shirt and sloppy kicks which went dead allowed Ulster off the hook. The forwards rumbled into gear with Nick Timoney, Sean Reidy, Matthew Rea and Kieran Treadwell breaking the gainline with dominant carries. Space opened up out wide with Jacob Stockdale crossing for his second try in as many weeks.
For the rest of the half, Ulster were completely dominant which led to Connacht indiscipline. Rob Herring added his sixth try of the season with half an hour on the clock.
The second hald started as Ulster left off. It was a purple match for Dan McFarland‘s side and showed that when they kept it tight in the forwards, Connacht strugged to cope. Gaps eventually emerged but the home side were unable to capitalise. Billy Burns scored in the corner after more strong carries from the Ulster forwards.
The game swung back in the favour of Connacht upon the yellow card of Carty and introduction of Abraham Papali’i. The Auckland-born number eight burst through Burns’ tackle and made sufficient ground to disorganise the Ulster defence allowing Caolin Blade the first of two tries with a snipe around the corner.
Blade scored his second 13 minutes later making it a four point game in favour of the away side. Ulster wrestled back the lead with a brilliant break from Lowry to set up Dave Shanahan to give Ulster a three point lead.
In the PRO14, Ulster would have been home and hosed when play was stopped for an apparent Kieran Marmion knock on after the 80 were up. Instead, Eoghan Masterson successfully used his captain’s challenge to give Connacht one last chance which they took with Peter Sullivan dotting down and winning the game for his side.
Who stood out?
Nick Timoney and Sean Reidy continue their good run of form for Ulster. Timoney provided another couple of turnovers while both made strong carries – Timoney averaged 5.1m per carry while Reidy averaged 1.7m. We’ve always known that Reidy was an important player for Ulster but at the minute his Dublin counterpart is one of the first names on the team sheet. Jacob Stockdale and James Hume also had good attacking performances.
It was great to see Iain Henderson and Will Addison back on the pitch after recovering from their respective injuries. Henderson was taken off nine minutes into the second half while Addison got 32 minutes on the pitch. Both put in decent performances with the ex Sale captain showcasing his talent with a mazey run in the second half. He was unlucky to be beaten by the bounce of the ball in the final play of the match which resulted in the game winning try.
Although I thought there was a case for Billy Burns’ try to be upgraded to a penalty try for a deliberate knock on, I thought referee Andrew Brace had a good game, calling all of the big decisions correctly.
Where now for Ulster?
That defeat was a bitter pill to swallow and it puts a little bit more pressure on next week’s semi final. Having watched Leicester Tigers’ derby game with Northampton today, I see no reason why Ulster cannot make it three away victories in the Challenge Cup in a row. I think we’ll see Ulster change defensive tactic in order to tackle the ball carrying prowess of Jasper Wiese, Nemani Nadolo and Ellis Genge.