Tries at crucial times from Craig Gilroy, Tom Court and the excellent Ian Humphreys proved the difference as Ulster move up two places to seventh in the RaboDirect Pro12 League.
The westerners had been playing out of their skins lately and, unusually, sitting above Ulster in the league. Indeed many had fancied Eric Elwood’s charges to win in Belfast for the first time in over half a century.
It wasn’t to be, although Ulster may have to pay a big price for their success with major doubts over flanker Stephen Ferris (right ankle) and skipper Johann Muller (left arm) ahead of next week’s opening gambit in Europe against Clermont Auvergne.
In a game where the big hits came often and with brute force, Cave felt he had been put through a mangle.
“We knew it was going to be a physical game against Connacht, it always is, but it was a lot tougher than I expected,” said Cave who apart from allowing one trying-scoring chance go begging, had an excellent game in Ulster’s midfield.
“I don’t think my body has ever felt as battered after a game of rugby. With that in mind, it was very satisfactory to get that all-important win. While it is great to stop the rot, we will not be getting too excited about it though.
“It is just a first step of a very important phase for us. Players are starting to gel back in again. For example, Paddy Wallace, Ian Humphreys and myself haven’t played together as a unit in over a year, and it does take a little time. We are executing the moves well, but there are just a couple of spilled passes that’s letting us down.
“We were ready to go in at half-time at 3-3, then a little bit lucky in grabbing a try just before half-time. I suppose we were a little bit under pressure and making a few mistakes, but we settled after half-time.
“It is certainly a big boost for next week. Everyone is very excited with the visit of Clermont. There is a great chase for places in the team, particularly when you consider we started with 12 internationals against Connacht. It gives coach Brian McLaughlin a bit of a headache with selection but if individuals play well, it will make his job easy.”
Meanwhile, Elwood was disappointed ahead of their first-ever European Cup game next week against Harlequins, blaming a lack of concentration.
“It was a case of déjà vu. I had the same conversation after last week’s game against Cardiff. It was crucial times in games that we dropped our concentration. Just before half-time, we allowed Ulster in for their first try, then again 10 minutes after half-time before handing them another right at the end.
“In the first half, we did an awful lot of good work for 38 minutes and were really in the game, then we slackened off and Ulster scored. We failed to take a kick-off on the restart, and bang, another try and we are really chasing the game.
“It’s really difficult when you make those kind of mistakes away from home and you know you are going to get punished. We didn’t control the collision area, and if you can’t do that, you will suffer.”
Although, coach Brian McLaughlin will be awaiting news of his injured stars today, he raised a big smile with the performance of New Zealand’s World Cup winner, John Afoa.
“He had a cracking game,” said McLaughlin.
“He came straight from New Zealand and on to the training paddock this week. A great guy and he fitted in immediately which helped our set piece dominate.”
Ulster also dominated the breakdown area with their physicality, something that had been lacking over the past months. It paved the way for the opening try as Connacht’s defence was scattered and Gilroy’s dancing feet did the rest.
Court’s rare try came after sustained pressure on the Connacht line after Rory Best initially stole in to nick the restart.
The third try came in injury time with Humphreys skipping through some less-than-effective defence to touch down at the posts.
ULSTER: S Danielli, A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy, I Humphreys, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg.
Replacements: I Porter for Marshall (58), P McAllister for Afoa (60), A Macklin for Court (65), A Kyriacou for Best (65), L Stevenson for D Tuohy (69), R Diack S Ferris (58).
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran, F Vainikolo, G Duffy (capt), D McSharry, B Tuohy; M Nikora (O’Connor, 63), P O’Donohoe Murphy, 65); B Wilkinson (Loughney, 53), A Flavin (Reynecke, 53), R Ah You (Rogers, 50), M Swift (Gannon, 22), M McCarthy, TJ Anderson, E Grace (Muldoon, 55), G Naoupu.
Replacement: J O’Connor for Nikora (63), F Murphy for O’Donohoe (65), R Loughney for Wilkinson (53), E Reynecke for A Flavin (53), D Rogers for R Ah You (50), D Gannon for Swift (22), J Muldoon for Grace (55).
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU).