ULSTER 19 CONNACHT 25, Kingspan Stadium
Scorers: Ulster: Tries: Beth Cregan 2, Niamh Marley; Cons: Ella Durkan 2
Connacht: Tries: Clara Barrett 2, Ava Ryder, Emma Fabby; Con: Nicole Fowley; Pen: Nicole Fowley
HT: Ulster 0 Connacht 20
Ireland Under-18 winger Barrett, who turns 19 next Thursday, scored in each half at a wet and windy Kingspan Stadium, with her 69th-minute score confirming Lyndon Jones’ side as deserved winners.
Connacht did the majority of the damage in the first half, building a 20-0 lead with Mayo natives Barrett, Ava Ryder and Emma Fabby all touching down. Nicole Fowley kicked the other points.
Captain Beth Cregan led a determined response from Ulster, registering tries in the 45th and 55th minutes, before Fowley and Shannon Touhey combined to send Barrett over out wide.
Connacht had done enough to earn their first Interprovincial victory since the 2019/20 campaign, but Ulster did salvage a late losing bonus point when Ella Durkan converted a Niamh Marley effort past the 80-minute mark.
Ulster struggled for territory early on, the westerners turning down a kick at the posts before Fowley was just short with a shot from the 40-metre range.
The Connacht out-half pulled a second effort wide in the 10th minute, but they opened the scoring soon after, Mairéad Coyne dangling a kick through and Barrett beat Fern Wilson and Rachael McIlroy to get the grounding in the right corner.
A charge down from Kelly McCormill lifted the hosts and Maeve Liston was able to put Dungannon’s Marley into space on the left, yet Connacht responded with a well-won scrum penalty.
The Connacht forwards wielded more influence with ball in hand, some impressive passing in midfield releasing Ryder just outside the Ulster 22, and the Railway Union youngster tore through and handed off McIlroy to double the lead to 10 points after 18 minutes.
An Orla Dixon break, coupled with another scrum penalty, kept Connacht playing in the right areas of the pitch as Neill Alcorn’s charges were forced on the defensive again.
Nearing the half hour mark, Connacht struck for try number three with Dixon and Coyne cleverly exploiting space out wide. The latter dummied through and was hauled down short before a few bites at the cherry ended with flanker Fabby burrowing over.
Fowley converted and then tagged on a penalty, widening the margin to 20 points as Ulster regrouped, bringing on new props in Gemma McCamley and Ava Fannin before they began to put some promising phases together.
Connacht number 8 Grace Browne Moran saw yellow for collapsing a lineout maul, yet Durkan overcooked her kick to touch and the visitors held firm soon after thanks to a turnover penalty won by Lisa-Marie Murphy.
Ulster were much improved on the restart, winger Marley getting a chance to stretch her legs, and sniping scrum half McIlroy brought them deep into Connacht’s 22.
A penalty tucked away into touch, the hosts’ maul produced the goods with a monster drive propelling Cregan over the whitewash. Durkan was unfortunate with the conversion which bounced back off the far post.
Ulster were faring much better in the possession stakes now, upping the physicality but with Connacht’s experienced prop Laura Feely repelling them with some well-timed entries at the breakdown.
Cregan provided more inspiration for her side in the 55th minute, Marley going close when invited through off a scrum and her skipper tidied up loose ball and stretched out to score despite Sonia McDermott’s tackle.
The conversion from Durkan reduced the arrears to 20-12, Fowley missing a kickable penalty in response and, in a scrappy spell, breaks from McCormill and Coyne went unrewarded.
It was Fowley who pointed the way for the westerners, regathering her own chip and linking with Dixon as the green shirts flooded forward back into the Ulster 22.
Replacement Niamh O’Grady and Feely did a lot of donkey work as ball carriers, wearing down the home defence before Fowley and Touhey flashed the ball wide for Barrett, the Vodafone player-of-the-match, to complete her brace.
That timely try gave Connacht a 13-point cushion, but they had to weather a late storm from Ulster. The hosts’ lineout malfunctioned close to the Connacht line, Karly Tierney pinching two of Cregan’s throws and another one was overthrown.
Ultimately, Ulster’s persistence paid off when Ilse van Staden carried strongly and Durkan wisely switched play back to the left side where she linked with Liston to put Marley over, the out-half adding a neatly-struck conversion.
TIME LINE: 8 minutes – Connacht penalty: missed by Nicole Fowley – 0-0; 10 mins – Connacht penalty: missed by Nicole Fowley – 0-0; 11 mins – Connacht try: Clara Barrett – 0-5; conversion: missed by Nicole Fowley – 0-5; 18 mins – Connacht try: Ava Ryder – 0-10; conversion: missed by Nicole Fowley – 0-10; 28 mins – Connacht try: Emma Fabby – 0-15; conversion: Nicole Fowley – 0-17; 33 mins – Connacht penalty: Nicole Fowley – 0-20; 37 mins – Connacht yellow card: Grace Browne Moran; Half-time – Ulster 0 Connacht 20; 45 mins – Ulster try: Beth Cregan – 5-20; conversion: missed by Ella Durkan – 5-20; 55 mins – Ulster try: Beth Cregan – 10-20; conversion: Ella Durkan – 12-20; 59 mins – Connacht penalty: missed by Nicole Fowley – 12-20; 69 mins – Connacht try: Clara Barrett – 12-25; conversion: missed by Nicole Fowley – 12-25; 80+1 mins – Ulster try: Niamh Marley – 17-25; conversion: Ella Durkan – 19-25; Full-time – Ulster 19 Connacht 25
ULSTER: Maeve Liston (Blackrock College RFC); Fern Wilson (Queen’s University Belfast RFC), Kelly McCormill (Cooke RFC), Mya Alcorn (Blackrock College RFC), Niamh Marley (Dungannon RFC); Ella Durkan (Blackrock College RFC), Rachael McIlroy (Queen’s University Belfast RFC); Sadhbh McGrath (Cooke RFC), Megan Simpson (Cooke RFC), Ilse van Staden (Cooke RFC), Keelin Brady (Railway Union RFC), Brenda Barr (Suttonians RFC), India Daley (Enniskillen RFC), Beth Cregan (City of Derry RFC/Blackrock College RFC) (capt), Sophie Barrett (Enniskillen RFC).
Replacements used: Gemma McCamley (Cooke RFC) for McGrath, Ava Fannin (Blackrock College RFC) for van Staden (both 30-53 mins), Emma Jordan (Malone RFC/Suttonians RFC) for Alcorn (half-time), Helen McGhee (Cooke RFC) for Barr, Fiona Tuite (Old Belvedere RFC) for Daley (both 60), Amber Redmond (Suttonians RFC) for McIlroy (65), Stacey Sloan (Cooke RFC) for Simpson (71). Not used: Amanda Morton (Cooke RFC).
CONNACHT: Mairéad Coyne (Galwegians RFC); Ava Ryder (Railway Union RFC), Orla Dixon (Galwegians RFC), Shannon Touhey (Suttonians RFC), Clara Barrett (UL Bohemian RFC); Nicole Fowley (Galwegians RFC), Mary Healy (Galwegians RFC) (capt); Grainne O’Loughlin (Railway Union RFC), Lily Brady (UL Bohemian RFC), Laura Feely (Blackrock College RFC), Fiona Scally (Galwegians RFC), Eva McCormack (UL Bohemian RFC), Lisa-Marie Murphy (Galwegians RFC), Emma Fabby (Railway Union RFC), Grace Browne Moran (Galwegians RFC).
Replacements used: Sonia McDermott (Railway Union RFC) for McCormack (47 mins), Kayla Waldron (Galwegians RFC) for Murphy (49), Karly Tierney (Tuam/Oughterard RFC) for Fabby (53), Emily Gavin (Galwegians RFC) for O’Loughlin, Elizabeth McNicholas (Galwegians RFC) for Brady (both 60), Olivia Haverty (Galwegians RFC) for Healy, Niamh O’Grady (Galwegians RFC) for McNicholas (both 62), Éabha Nic Dhonnacha (Tuam/Oughterard RFC) for Ryder, McCormack for Browne Moran (both 74).
Referee: Robbie Jenkinson (IRFU)