Ulster and Connacht make valuable points

Connacht 20 Ulster 27: Ulster’s title hopes and Connacht’s less ambitious but equally important Champions Cup qualification dreams both remain on target after a seven-try Pro 12 thriller at the Galway Sportsground.

Ulster and Connacht make valuable points

A clinically superior Ulster took the five points on offer; Connacht had to be satisfied to carve out a losing bonus point. And results elsewhere deemed both have kept their respective ambitions alive. Scarlets’ last-gasp win over Zebre keeps the Welsh outfit level on points with Pat Lam’s men, while Munster, although overtaking Ulster, did Connacht the biggest favour with their demolition of Edinburgh.

“That’s the beauty of this competition at the moment,” said Pat Lam, “it will go down to the wire and it’s exciting for everyone. It’s hard to tell how many points we will need (to secure European qualification). Our aim is to get as many as we can because it could well depend on other results. Look at Zebre, they were 30 seconds away from doing us a favour. All we can control is making sure we come out and try to get the win against Glasgow.”

Down 17 — 0 at the break, Connacht fought back twice to come within a score, and finished the game threatening the Ulster line.

“At this time last year, we got hammered home and away. We’ve got two points off them this year. The gap is closing and that is reflected on where we sit at the moment.”

Ulster, despite pre-kick off confusion at which end to play, were off the mark with the wind within four minutes when fullback Ludik Ludik crossed for the first try. Jared Payne, along with his fellow Ireland stars Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe, were instrumental throughout, carving out space on the counterattack, and clinical when profiting from the pack’s hard yards.

Connacht enjoyed their fair share of possession, and the returning former Chief Bundi Aki, after 11 weeks out, impressed, coming closest to scoring with a cheeky dive on the ball, but was just beaten by Ruan Pienaar. However the home side’s lack of precision proved costly when Ulster grabbed two tries in five minutes. An Aki turnover was quickly fired out to Tommy Bowe who delivered in the right corner, before Ulster capitalised on a blockdown with Gilroy benefiting from the overlap. Peinaar, unsuccessful with three earlier kicks, converted for a 17-0 lead.

However for the second week in succession, Connacht took the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half, but still came up short.

Top try scorer Matt Healy showed his pace to open the home side’s account, with outhalf Miah Nikora adding the conversion and a penalty after Connacht sent Ulster’s scrum reeling.

However Bowe and wily skipper Rory Best scuppered Connacht’s chances, despite replacement outhalf Jack Carty landing a superb penalty and conversion to a 70th minute Tiernan O’Halloran effort.

“As coaches were a little bit nervous towards the end,” Ulster’s Neil Doak conceded. “We are glad of the five points, we dug in and got the result.”

The return of Iain Henderson gave Doak another big ball carrier, while Chris Henry’s first match after heart surgery was a huge boost for himself and the Ulster side.

CONNACHT:

T O’Halloran, D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy, M Nikora, K Marmion, D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (cpt), E Masterson, G Naoupu.

Replacements, E McKeon for Naoupu (50), U Dillane for Roux (57), J Carty for Nikora (59), R Loughney for Buckley (66) and J Cooney for Marmion (66), D Leader for Aki , F Bealham for Ah You, S Delahunt for McCartney (all 68), Roux for Dillane (71).

ULSTER:

L Ludik, T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, C Gilroy, P Jackson, R Pienaar, C Black, R Best (C), W Herbst, D Tuohy, F Van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson.

Replacements, McCloskey for Ludik (58), R Bronson for Herbst, and R Diak for Henderson (63), A Warwick for Black (68), I Humphries for Cave(72) Referee:

Nigel Owens (WRU)

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