THERE was little to suggest there will be any change in the traditional Irish pecking order as Ulster easily accounted for Connacht last night.
On this performance, Connacht have a uphill struggle if they want to surpass Ulster for the third Heineken Cup berth, and Connacht’s inconsistency once again proves a stumbling block for Michael Bradley’s men.
Not since December 2005 had Connacht taken Ulster’s scalp. Last night Ulster made a statement and sent Connacht packing in their own backyard.
Sharper in attack and more confident all round, Ulster reaped the rewards, particularly in a one-sided second half in which they denied Connacht possession and territory.
Ulster mirrored their opening half by striking fast and early, capitalising on Connacht’s inability to control the kick-off. A slick inside pass, and Andy Kyriacou made the hard yards before Ulster were once again within metres of the line. No 8 Robbie Diack eventually claimed the touchdown from a series of forward drives. and when Humphreys added the conversion, the game swung in Ulster’s favour.
Connacht could not get their hands on the ball, and when they did, their attack was blunt and pedestrian. They showed plenty of endeavour but their attacking prowess was limited against a well-marshalled Ulster defence, and their only scoring opportunity was a 56th minute penalty which Keatley sent wide.
Ulster were content to keep the scoreboard ticking over and Humphreys delivered with two penalties, but they made Connacht pay with another two tries to bag the all-important bonus point with Nagusa crossing in the 69th minute, and Humphreys having the last say in the 74th minute.
Yet Connacht were still in the game at half-time despite conceding an early try. With Keatley missing a second minute penalty chance outside the 10m line, Ulster grabbed the opening try within two minutes. Centre Darren Cave was instrumental in the build-up, weaving past a couple of Connacht defenders to set up field position. And after some attempted surges from the pack, it was Cave again who split the defence when the ball was spun from left to right, crossing near the posts to give an easy conversion for Ian Humphreys.
It was a sucker-punch for Connacht whose defence looked tentative in those opening minutes, but the home side’s pack looked to have the measure of their opponents and by the seventh minute Keatley had struck a penalty from the left touchline to stay in touch.
While the Connacht pack were winning the battle on the floor, and the set piece worked well, Connacht’s youngsters lacked similar composure. Keatley opted for a drop goal which should not have been attempted, and on too many occasions they kicked away the ball.
Ulster looked potent with ball in hand, both out wide and with some close-in driving. They created the greater opportunities, and but for Troy Nathan’s tackle on Nagusa, Ulster would have been over again before the end of the opening quarter.
Although Keatley struck a second penalty in the 19th minute after Ulster were offside in the ruck following a kick and catch from Gavin Duffy, Ulster reapplied the pressure. It proved a critical period for Connacht who first forced the turnover just yards from the line after Ulster’s attempted catch and drive from the lineout, and moments later when Keith Matthews and John Muldoon nailed Simon Danielli, who was forced to retire with a shoulder injury, Connacht enjoyed the edge in the breakdown.
It gave them hope as they entered the interval just a point behind, but the mobility of Ulster’s pack, and the confidence of their ball carriers ensured they have stymied any momentum Connacht needed at this point in the season.
CONNACHT: G Duffy, B Tuohy, T Nathan, K Matthews, F Carr, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan, A Browne, B Upton, J Muldoon (capt), R Ofisa, M McComish.
Replacements: M McCarthy for McComish (50m), J O’Connor for Ofisa (55m), R Morris for Hagan (58m), A Wynne for Keatley, C O’Loughlin for Murphy, L Bibo for Tuohy (67m),
ULSTER: C Schifcofske, T Nagusa, D Cave, P Wallace (capt), S Danielli, I Humphreys, I Boss, T Court, A Kyriacou, B Botha, E O’Donoghue, D Tuohy, C Henry, W Faloon, R Diack.
Replacements: A Trimble for Danielli (31m), D Fitzpatrick for Kyriacou 60m, N Brady for Botha (70m), T Anderson for Henry (70m).
Referee: G Clancy (IRFU).
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