MATCH REPORT WITH THANKS TO THE GUINNESS PRO14 Caolin Blade’s second-half try helped Connacht continue their impressive recent form with a hard-fought 21-12 Guinness PRO14 victory over Ulster at the Sportsground.
Connacht have now won six of their last seven games in all competitions – and bounced back in style from a heart-breaking last-gasp 33-29 defeat to Leinster a week ago – as scrum-half Blade added to first-half tries from Shane Delahunt and Bundee Aki.
Angus Kernohan had narrowed the visitors’ deficit to 14-7 at the break while Jordi Murphy was also mauled over the line in the final quarter, but defeat extends Ulster’s three-year winless streak in away games against fellow Irish provinces that begun on St Stephen’s Day 2015.
Victory is the third in a row for Connacht over Ulster – the first time since the 1950s that has happened – and means they jump up to second in Conference A, temporarily at least, behind only Glasgow Warriors.
After a cagey opening, Connacht took advantage of the promising attacking platform provided by turning over an Ulster maul in their own 22 as a number of phases ended with Delahunt burrowing over from close range.
The hosts had brought hooker Delahunt and tighthead Conor Carey into the starting line-up from the narrow Leinster defeat a week ago and the new-look front row impressed in the scrum.
That dominance in the tight yielded dividends on 20 minutes as Blade fed Aki off the back of a controlled five-metre scrum and the bruising centre powered his way through weak Ulster tackling to stretch out and dot down.
At 14-0 down, Ulster finally began to build a foundation and took advantage of a spell in the Connacht 22 when Johnny McPhillips’ 33rd-minute cross-field kick into the in-goal area went through Cian Kelleher’s hands, bounced off his head and Kernohan was able to touch down the loose ball.
John Cooney curled his touchline conversion attempt between the posts to narrow the deficit to seven but the hosts restored their two-try advantage almost straight after the break when Kyle Godwin’s dink over the top was collected by Jack Carty and he passed inside to Blade to run in the score.
Carty – who was so impressive in a man-of-the-match display against Leinster – missed the opportunity to extend the lead to three scores when his penalty from halfway drifted wide of the left upright but his astute kicking out of hand kept Connacht in the ascendancy as the half progressed.
However, persistent infringing in their own 22 saw Connacht reduced to 14 men – Ultan Dillane the man eventually sin-binned just a minute after coming on for taking out the lifter in the lineout – and Ulster took immediate advantage as they drove a maul over in the corner, with Murphy at the bottom of the pile.
Cooney couldn’t add a second touchline conversion but his side stayed in the contest with some desperate defence on their own try-line with six minutes remaining, eventually forcing a knock-on from the home side.
However, they couldn’t find a score of their own – and Connacht’s attempts to secure a four-try bonus point also failed – as they game ended 21-12 in favour of the hosts.