It was no interprovincial classic this evening at the Galway Sportsground, but Ulster did just enough to secure only their second Guinness Pro12 away win of the season courtesy of Nick Williams’ late try.
Five points from the boot of Paddy Jackson, topped up Williams’ try, consigned Connacht to their first home defeat of the 2015/16 campaign, and elevated Les Kiss’ men to third in the standings on 31 points – one place and three points behind this evening’s opponents.
Four personnel changes from the victorious starting XV in Toulouse saw Rory Scholes slot in on the left wing in place of the injured Craig Gilroy, while upfront Andrew Warwick and Rob Herring replaced Kyle McCall and Rory Best at loosehead and hooker, and the Cardiff-bound Williams took over from Roger Wilson at Number Eight.
Elsewhere, the backs lined up with Louis Ludik at full-back, Andrew Trimble on the right wing, Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey in the centre, with Jackson and Ruan Pienaar in the half-back slots.
Wiehahn Herbst completed the front row, with Alan O’Connor and Franco van der Merwe continuing in the engine room, and Robbie Diack and Sean Reidy partnering Williams in the back row.
The first period offered little in the way of spectacle, other than a show of strength from both defences, with neither attack coming close to delivering a knockout blow.
Connacht – unbeaten at home all season in all competitions – made a stirring start, schewing two early kicks at goal to apply severe pressure inside the Ulster ’22’, only breaking down in the seventh minute through Eoghan Masterson’s knock-on five metres from the try-line.
Back in possession, Ulster laboured somewhat to break through the Westerners’ high defence line until a penalty enabled Jackson to kick into the home ’22’. However Connacht resisted well again, containing the visitors far from danger and eventually forcing the handling error.
Connacht could have opened the scoring on the half-hour mark but for Craig Ronaldson’s off-target boot, but Jackson made no such mistake two minutes later as he kicked over from 25 metres wide on the left. Ulster continued to enjoy good possession as the half drew to a close, but a combination of a greasy ball and Connacht’s well-drilled rearguard ensured that any expansive rugby the visitors tried to put together came to naught.
Half-Time Score Connacht 0 Ulster 3
Pat Lam’s side took custody of the ball as the second half began, plugging away at the Ulster ’22’ for a good eight minutes before Ronaldson had the chance to level the scoreboard with a close-range penalty. However the centre once again pulled his kick wide, and as Ulster poured down the other end in their most promising break of the match thus far, only a slightly undercooked looped pass from Marshall to Trimble prevented the wing from picking up and touching down in the right-hand corner.
Connacht then powered forward in their turn, seizing on a loose Ulster ball in their own ’22’ and racing forward, only for Marshall to deliberately trip replacement out-half AJ MacGinty as he chased on his own kick, earning the centre 10 minutes in the sinbin.
MacGinty fared better with the boot on 64 minutes than Ronaldson had earlier in the encounter, slotting over his side’s first points to restore parity. However the concession served to jolt Ulster into life, and with Marshall returning to the field with 10 minutes to go, the visitors looked the side more likely to break the status quo.
The breakthrough came on 77 minutes, Marshall picking up from a strong Ulster scrum and forcing his way to centimetres from the try-line before three Connachtmen dragged him to ground. The centre did well to make the ball available, and none other than Williams was on hand to pick up and stretch over for the score, converted by Jackson.
Now on a roll of four successive victories, Ulster face interpro rivals Munster on Saturday 2 January again in the Guinness Pro12 before a trio of European showdowns – two with Oyonnax either side of a mouth-watering clash with Saracens.
Full-Time Score Connacht 3 Ulster 10