By Daire Walsh Connacht Eagles held off a strong second half surge from an Ulster Development XV to claim a second consecutive interprovincial victory at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on Friday.
Following their convincing success against a Leinster Development side in the same venue, the Eagles were hoping to continue their winning run on a breezy afternoon in Dublin. With a brace of Matthew Devine tries being supplemented by a Jonny Murphy five-pointer, they found themselves 19-5 in front at the interval and well in contention for a memorable outing at the HPC.
This opening period blitz proved crucial in the end as the northern province fought back on the resumption, with Ireland U20s fly-half James Humphreys - as well as lively replacements Lewis Finlay and Zac Ward - very much the fore. Nonetheless, the Eagles did enough to claim the spoils in the end.
Patience was required from Connacht during the early exchanges with the Ulster defence leaving space at a premium in the attacking areas of the field. The westerners spent a good chunk of the first-quarter inside the Ulster ’22’, however, and it ultimately paid dividends in the 19th-minute.
Off a close-range set-piece, scrum-half Devine spotted a defensive gap and crossed over the whitewash in clinical style. A compatriot of Humphreys in this year’s Ireland U20s set-up, Devine’s half-back partner Cathal Forde added the bonuses in confident fashion.
Rather than settling for a shot at goal, Forde very often opted to kick to touch as the Eagles sought additional tries to compliment Devine’s breakthrough score. This worked a treat for his side on 27 minutes when - after the Connacht maul secured front-foot momentum - Devine was on hand to claim his second try of the half.
Ulster had struggled to gain a foothold in the play up to this point, but came roaring into the action just past the half-hour mark. Conor Rankin was close to getting over in the right-corner, only to be forced into touch just shy of the line.
However, Ulster got their hands on the ball from the ensuing line-out and tighthead prop Scott Wilson supplied the finishing touches to a powerful maul. Although Humphreys’ conversion was off-target, Ulster had served notice of their potential.
Still, Connacht remained calm and reinforced their authority ahead of the half-time break. At the end of a lengthy spell inside the Ulster ’22’, Devine released flanker Murphy for a try to the right of the posts.
Forde also split the posts off his third kick at goal to put Connacht into a strong position at the start of the second period.
They were called on to do a lot of defensive work during the third-quarter, but stuck diligently to their task as Ulster aimed to force their way back into the reckoning. Ulster No 8 David McCann was close to crossing over on a couple of occasions, but the Eagles were able to keep them at bay for large stretches.
With both rearguards applying enormous pressure, it was difficult for either side to develop a strong attacking rhythm for much of the second half.
However, Ulster finally found a way past their interprovincial rivals for a second try in the 69th-minute. Humphreys and Ward carried at pace into the opposition half, where Shea O’Brien was ideally-placed to cut in from the left-wing for an eye-catching try.
Humphreys added the extras to bring the gap down to seven, but the Eagles were to grab an insurance score with the final whistle approaching. With victory within his side’s sights, Forde elected for the posts from a 30-metre penalty.
He expertly dissected the uprights to leave Connacht on the cusp of another triumph in the HPC. Ward did sprint over for a converted effort from the final play of the game, but the Eagles were not to be denied.
Scorers - Connacht Eagles: Tries: Matthew Devine 2, Jonny Murphy. Cons: Cathal Forde 2 Pen: Cathal Forde. Ulster Development: Tries: Scott Wilson, Shea O’Brien, Zac Ward Cons: James Humphreys 2. CONNACHT EAGLES XV
: Oran McNulty; Josh O’Connor, Ben O’Donnell, Shayne Bolton, Darragh Kennedy; Cathal Forde, Matthew Devine; Bart Vermeulen, Dylan Tierney Martin, Jack Aungier; Kacper Palamarczuk, Eoin Ryan; Jonny Murphy, Oisin McCormack, Ciaran Booth.
Replacements: Declan Adamson, Charlie Ward, Greg McGrath, Matthew O’Hara, Gareth Kilkelly, Will Reilly, Ruairdhi Fallon, Declan O’Loughlin.
ULSTER DEVELOPMENT XV: Shea O’Brien, Conor Rankin, Ben Carson, Angus Curtis, Jude Postlethwaite; James Humphreys, Conor McKee; Callum Reid, James McCormick, Scott Wilson; Harry Sheridan, Adam McNamee; Lorcan McLoughlin, Reuben Crothers, David McCann.
Replacements: Tom Stewart, Josh Hanlon, Joe Mawhinney, Paddy Browne, Ross Taylor, Lewis Finlay, James McNabney, Zac Ward, Ross McKay.