John Afoa, Stuart Olding, Tommy Bowe and Rory Best are four players who look set to return in the coming weeks, a welcome boost to coach Mark Anscombe as the province heads into a tough month and the start of the Heineken Cup.
“We are building towards a settled team,” says Anscombe. “It’s a process. We have some players who maybe are not at the top of their game, but each game is either 60 or 70 minutes towards building that foundation to getting them right.”
A key element of Saturday’s contest was at the breakdown where Ulster dominated in the second half, having trailed 7-5 at the break.
“It’s an area we have done a lot of work on,” admitted Anscombe. “If you don’t get that right, you cannot get any momentum and put pressure on the opposition.”
Connacht came under the referee’s microscope for a second week in succession and handed Ulster three penalty opportunities in the second half — two of which outhalf Paddy Jackson converted, along with scoring a crucial try.
Luke Marshall instigated the move when he cut through the defence and, from a quick recycle, Jackson profited from the three-man overlap. It put the visitors 15-7 clear after 56 minutes as the hosts again failed to push on after a dominant first half.
Connacht coach Pat Lam saw some positives in the defeat though. “The game is all about pressure, taking ownership to keep the pressure on. Our defence was impressive, barring two slip-ups, and the guys playing at this level are getting more experienced.”
In a opening half that marked a first start for former Super 15 winning captain Craig Clarke, Connacht controlled first phase possession, releasing their young backs when possible, with Matt Healy again looking impressive. On the other wing Fionn Carr set up field position and from a patient and well worked series of forward drives, outhalf Dan Parks finished well and converted to become the first player to pass the 1,500 points mark in the league’s history.
Ulster, however, replied almost immediately when a break from Jackson sent left wing Michael Allan through to cut the deficit to 7-5, and they took control of the second half to deny the home side again. Worse for Connacht are the likely long term injuries to both hooker Jason Harris-Wright (bicep tear) and Willie Faloon (ankle).
CONNACHT: G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wrigh, N White; M Swift, C Clarke; J Heenan, W Faloon, J Muldoon.
Replacements: S Henry for Harris-Wright (11), A Muldowney for Clarke (ht), G Naoupu for Faloon (47), C Ronaldson for Parks (60), R Ah You for Wilkinson, R Loughney for White (both 64), D Poolman for Duffy (70), P O’Donohoe for Marmion (72).
ULSTER: J Payne; C McIlwaine, D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen; P Jackson, I Porter; T Court, R Herring), D Fitzpatrick; J Muller, I Henderson; R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams.
Replacements: R Lutton for Fitzpatrick (38),C Gilroy for McIlwaine, P Marshall for Porter (both ht), L Stephenson for Williams (56), R Diack for Wilson (63), K McCall for Court (66), J McKinney for Allen (71), N Annett for Herring (70).
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU).