By John O'Sullivan
Connacht fell to a 19-32 defeat to Ulster in a keenly contested Christmas interprovincial clash at the Sportsground.
The hosts scored three tries through Jack Carty, John Porch, and Tom Daly -- two of which Carty converted -- but it wasn't enough in an entertaining contest. The visitors came away with the spoils, thanks to six Ian Madigan penalties and tries from Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney, both of which Madigan converted.
It was a physical start to the contest, with both teams looking to make amends for recent European defeats and it was the visitors who profited from their early chances with Madigan kicking Ulster into a 6-0 lead with two well-struck penalties.
Connacht, though, were well in the game and their pack was in the ascendancy at scrum time. After three consecutive scrum penalties in the Ulster 22, the Northerners were reduced to 14 men when Kyle McCall was yellow carded. With the man advantage, Connacht ran their next penalty and -- after a few phases of hard carries -- the ball was worked wide to Carty to touch down in the right corner. The Roscommon native, from the most difficult of angles tight to the touchline, then kicked the conversion to his own try and the home team found themselves in the lead, 7-6.
The lead would swap hands twice more before half time as Ulster moved ahead through another Madigan penalty before Connacht -- showing their trademark attacking flair -- scored their second try of the evening.
Some big carries from the pack -- with Ultan Dillane prominent -- established the Westerners field position in the Ulster 22 and from there they launched an attack, with Jarrad Butler and Shane Delahunt carrying hard, that saw Daly offload to Porch to touch down in the right-hand corner. Carty slotted the conversion to see the home team go into the interval 14-9 to the good.
The visitors started the second period in a strong fashion and they notched a try when Murphy powered over from close range. Madigan made no mistake with the extras and the Northerners once again found themselves in the lead. With their tails up, Ulster scored another try in a profitable opening fifteen minutes of the second half. Timoney showed pace and power to touch down and -- with the conversion successful from Madigan -- Connacht found themselves 23-14 behind.
The energy and directness of Caolin Blade was giving Connacht momentum as they chased their way back into the game. After some heavy pressure in Ulster's 22, the hosts had a deserved third try when Tom Daly -- who assisted the second try -- burst through the outside cover to score. The conversion was wide, but with twenty minutes remaining the hosts were well in with a shout of winning.
Chasing the game, Connacht committed to attack but the visitors -- with Madigan on form off the tee -- kicked three more penalties to take the game away from the hosts and seal a 32-19 win.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan for Delahunt, Jordan Duggan for Denis Buckley, Dominic Robertson McCoy for Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury for Roux, Kieran Marmion for Caolin Blade, Sean O'Brien for De Buitlear, Colm De Buitlear for Tiernan O'Halloran