VODAFONE WOMEN’S INTERPROVINCIAL CHAMPIONSHIP – ROUND 3:
Saturday, August 26 –
CONNACHT 29 ULSTER 24, the Sportsground
Scorers: Connacht: Tries: Lily Brady, Orla Fenton, Ava Ryder 2, Grainne O’Loughlin; Cons: Nicole Fowley 2
Ulster: Tries: Ashling O’Connell, Ella Durkan, Beth Cregan, Bronach Cassidy; Cons: Ella Durkan 2
HT: Connacht 14 Ulster 17
Ulster newcomer Bronach Cassidy responded to a Grainne O’Loughlin try to make it a nervy finish for Lyndon Jones’ side, but ultimately their second victory of the campaign at the Sportsground was not enough to progress to the final.
Connacht, who finished on nine points, missed out as Leinster’s 26-19 defeat of Munster saw them join the Reds on 11 points at the summit. The westerners will play Ulster again next Saturday at Musgrave Park (kick-off 2pm) in the 3rd-4th place play-off.
An entertaining and fiercely-contested first half ended 17-14 in Ulster’s favour, with Ella Durkan and inspirational captain Beth Cregan both touching down while Connacht full-back Méabh Deely was in the sin bin.
Forwards Lily Brady and Orla Fenton, whose scores were converted by Connacht skipper Nicole Fowley, had earlier cancelled out Ashling O’Connell’s opening try for the underdogs.
However, Connacht reeled off three unanswered tries up to the hour mark with wingers Ryder and Laoise McGonagle in blistering form. Front rowers O’Loughlin and Cassidy closed out the scoring with a resilient Ulster deservedly picking up two bonus points.
An early Ulster onslaught was rewarded with an eighth-minute try, as Niamh Marley, excellent number 8 India Daley, Sophie Barrettand Cregan all gained ground before prop O’Connell powered over from a close-in ruck.
Durkan topped off that well-taken score with an equally accurate conversion, but Connacht hit back inside four minutes. Fowley pinged a penalty into touch and the home pack did the rest, hooker Brady controlling the ball at the base as their maul made it over from 10 metres out.
Sligo native Fowley used the wind behind her to curl over a classy levelling conversion from tight to the left touchline, as both teams took encouragement from turning early pressure into points.
Ulster had to scramble to hold up Sonia McDermott after a strong crash-ball run from Shannon Touhey, but more of the game was now being played in the visitors’ half and Connacht soon seized the lead.
Their 18-year-old flanker Beibhinn Gleeson tidied up a lineout that had gone loose and then latched onto Shannon Heapes who drove powerfully right up to the Ulster posts. With the defence opened up, Fowley neatly fed blindside Fenton for a seven-pointer.
Undeterred, Ulster roared back downfield with replacement prop Megan Brodie charging through into the 22. Deely infringed at the breakdown, going off her feet to earn her yellow.
Laura Cairns was denied by a knock-on but Emma Jordan gobbled up space out to the left to send Durkan over in the 27th minute. The try-scoring full-back was short with her conversion attempt, leaving it 14-12 to Connacht.
Daley, a former Ulster Girls Schools Cup-winning captain with Enniskillen Royal Grammar School, was having a big impact up front for Murray Houston’s charges, continually making metres with her carries.
Quick hands from Jordan and Durkan had Marley hunting down a try on the left wing, and it arrived when Cregan, having created space with a dummy, fended off Karley Tierney to give her team a three-point advantage in the 35th minute.
Brilliant work at the breakdown from Keelin Brady and Kelly McCormill, coupled with a midfield break from Marley, provided more positives for Cregan and company. Brady also ripped the ball free to hold Connacht at bay on the restart.
Nonetheless, the westerners made their next opportunity count as Deely’s scooped pass found replacement McGonagle who stepped inside, drawing in two defenders and getting her hands free to send Ryder away for a 25-metre run-in to the left corner.
Ryder showed her defensive abilities to deny Jordan a try just five metres out, with Connacht breathing a big sigh of relief after surviving McCormill’s fine break downfield for her charge-down of a Fowley kick.
Fowley responded by providing the assist for the bonus point try, as teenager Abby Moyles, who is growing into her out-half role, misjudged an awkwardly bouncing kick from her opposite number. Ryder snapped up the loose ball and backed her pace to score ahead of the chasing Marley.
Connacht continued to kick it up a gear in attack as the pacy McGonagle and Clara Barrett began to flood forward. Too many team penalties led to Marley seeing yellow for a deliberate knock-on, and O’Loughlin rumbled over from close range for a 29-17 scoreline.
Credit to Moyles, she produced two try-saving challenges on Ryder and McGonagle as Connacht pressed for a sixth try.
In response, Ireland dual international Brittany Hogan made her presence felt off the Ulster bench, carrying powerfully as did O’Connell in the lead up to Cassidy’s 70th-minute effort.
Although a Rachael McIlroy pass slipped through Maebh Clenaghan’s grasp, Queen’s University prop Cassidy gathered it, shrugged off an initial challenge and grounded the ball under the posts despite the presence of two more Connacht defenders.
Durkan’s conversion closed the gap to just five points, but Ulster were unable to engineer another try-scoring chance. They ended the match without replacement Brenda Barr who was shown a late yellow for a no-arms tackle on Fowley.
CONNACHT: Méabh Deely; Ava Ryder, Orla Dixon, Shannon Touhey, Clara Barrett; Nicole Fowley (capt), Olivia Haverty; Shannon Heapes, Lily Brady, Dearbhla Canty, Sonia McDermott, Eva McCormack, Orla Fenton, Beibhinn Gleeson, Karly Tierney.
Replacements used: Laoise McGonagle for Dixon (5 mins), Grainne O’Loughlin for Heapes (32), Niamh O’Grady for Canty (35), Kayla Waldron for Gleeson (46), Faith Oviawe for McCormack (54), Mollie Starr for McDermott, McCormack for Fenton (both 74). Not used: Stacy Hanley, Cliodhna O’Sullivan.
ULSTER: Ella Durkan; Maeve Liston, Kelly McCormill, Emma Jordan, Niamh Marley; Abby Moyles, Laura Cairns; Ava Fannin, Beth Cregan (capt), Ashling O’Connell, Keelin Brady, Taryn Schutzler, Sophie Barrett, Maebh Clenaghan, India Daley.
Replacements used: Megan Brodie for Fannin (19 mins), Rachael McIlroy for Cairns, Fannin for O’Connell (both half-time), Megan Edwards for Liston, Toni McCartney for Jordan (both 53), Brittany Hogan for Cregan, O’Connell for Brodie (both 55), Brenda Barr for Brady (59), Stacey Sloan for Barrett, Bronach Cassidy for Fannin (both 68), Brady for Schutzler (76).
Referee: Paul O’Connor (IRFU)