“We came down to Galway with a lot of hope,” the Ulster boss said. “We leave very disappointed with the result, but with a bonus point, which allows us to push up to Glasgow, and we still have two very big games to come.”
That bonus point in Saturday’s 26-21 loss to the Westerners was enough to close the gap on fourth-placed Glasgow with Munster doing them the favour in their victory over the Scottish outfit at Musgrave Park.
They will not be expecting such generosity in their final two interprovincial fixtures with Leinster and Munster. Connacht’s Eric Elwood, delighted to break a seven-season losing streak to the Ulstermen, is looking at fresh injury concerns ahead of Aironi’s visit this week, losing flanker Ray Ofisa (shoulder) and prop Brett Wilkinson with a torn calf.
In being able to welcome back number eight George Naoupu and veteran flanker Johnny O’Connor, who fractured his eye-socket against Leinster on New Year’s Day, Elwood had two of the stand-out figures in what as always going to be a tight match.
“George gave us the lift we needed and Johnny — well, he could be out for two years and still put his heart and soul into it. He gives you something every time and fellas just bounce off his energy.”
Connacht lost both Wilkinson and Ofisa within minutes of them grabbing an eight-point lead through a Miah Nikora penalty and try after Naoupu’s kick landed within metres of the Ulster line to launch the first raid. But losing Ronan Loughney to the sin bin allowed Ulster to kick-start their scoring tally when Paddy Jackson landed two penalties after two earlier misses from Humphreys.
“It was the perfect start, but for some strange reason we let them back into the game and, when we had the momentum, we didn’t really build on it and surprisingly went in at half-time losing,” said Elwood.
Henry Fa’afili’s direction was instrumental in the second try when full-back Gavin Duffy rounded Stefan Terblanche to grab Connacht’s second try, but Ulster finished the stronger. Terblanche’s tactical kicking kept Ulster in the attacking zone and their ability to disrupt Connacht’s lineout ensured turnover ball. Nigel Brady was the recipient of one miss-fired line-out at the tail and from the ensuing ruck Marshall dived over to score, injuring his arm in the process. Jackson added the conversion and a penalty three minutes later to take a 16 -13 half-time lead.
However, Connacht’s third try within three minutes of the restart proved the turning point. Winning a penalty from the scrum, John Muldoon set up Tiernan O’Halloran out wide, who raced through from 30 metres, with Nikora adding the extras.
Ulster started to make inroads through Nevin Spence, but it was Jackson, restored to out-half after Humphreys was replaced, who kept Ulster in the game. His 53rd-minute try and conversion once again put his side ahead, until George Naoupu’s break resulted in a kickable penalty when Mike McComish failed to roll away at the breakdown. Nikora landed the penalty to restore Connacht’s lead before his 74th-minute effort sealed that first inter-provincial win for Connacht since ’05.
“That’s a date that has been in my head,” said Elwood. “We placed a big emphasis on this game, and although we are capable of playing better, we are thankful for the four points.”
Scorers for Connacht: Tries: Duffy, Nikora, O’Halloran. Con: Nikora. Pens: Nikora 3.
Scorers for Ulster: Tries: Marshall, Jackson. Con: Jackson. Pens: Jackson 3.
CONNACHT: G Duffy, T O’Halloran, K Tonetti, H Fa’afili, F Vainikolo; M Nikora, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, E Reynecke, R Loughney, M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu.
Replacements: D Buckley for Wilkinson (10), J O’Connor for Ofisa (13), E Griffin for Fa’afili (55), P O’Donohoe for Murphy (70).
ULSTER: S Terblanche, I Whitten, N Spence, P Jackson, A D’Arcy; I Humphreys, P Marshall, P McAllister, N Brady, T Court, L Stevenson, N McComb, M McComish, W Faloon, R Diack.
Replacements: R Pienaar for Marshall (37), C Gilroy for Humphreys and A Macklin for Court (53), A Birch for Diack (55), C Black for McAllister and A Kyriacou for Brady (67), I Hendeson for McComb (74).
Referee: D Phillips (IRFU).