Ulster and Cardiff Blues played out an exciting draw in Belfast and defending champions Connacht held on for a narrow win against Edinburgh at Myreside.
Ulster 24–24 Cardiff Blues
Tries from Paddy Jackson and a penalty try put Ulster in control at the break, with Sam Warburton’s effort keeping the visitors in contention.
Two tries from Rey-Lee Lo and a Luke Marshall try saw the points shared in a thrilling 24-24 draw.
Six wins on the spin for Ulster have catapulted them into a play-off spot and with the visitors losing three on the bounce, all the signs pointed towards a straight forward home win.
It was Blues who opened the scoring though, with Gareth Anscombe kicking through the opening penalty after a strong start from Blues.
But it didn’t last for long as the Kingspan faithful began to see their side take control. The first try from Jackson came following Ruan Pienaar’s well executed kick forward, and Jackson converted his own effort to make it 7-3 in the hosts favour.
Blues were still well in the game and squandered an opportunity to go over for the first time, as Anscombe’s deep kick saw Rey Lee-Lo penalized for crossing.
They did get the try though to go back in front. Warburton went over for it after Willis Halaholo made the initial burst, and it was Blues’ seven who grounded, with Anscombe adding two.
The thrilling first-half took another turn though as Ulster got their second try. It came via the referees whistle, awarding the penalty try after Blues illegally halted a driving line-out that was only destined for the line. Jackson converted for a 14-10 advantage.
The first half was turning into a bit of a nightmare for Blues too, with injuries aplenty. Blaine Scully, Warburton and George Earle all received treatment as a promising opening threatened to go sour as Blues went in behind.
They retook the lead though soon after the break. Rey Lee-Lo got their second try of the night, finishing a good move which saw the ball originally kicked right into the corner. Alex Cuthbert’s decoy dragged the defence, and Anscombe’s kick allowed Lee-Lo underneath the posts. Anscombe’s two put Blues 17-14 ahead.
Jackson was again on hand to draw his side level as the second half wore on, and Matthew Rees added to Blues woes as he was also forced off the field through injury. But despite the injuries, Lee-Lo got his second and put breathing space between the sides.
Skipping past a challenge in the middle and stepping aside from the last man, he went over and Anscombe’s conversion put Cardiff 24-17 in front.
But again it didn’t last as Ulster clawed themselves back to level terms. Luke Marshall cut back to throw the back-line the wrong way and found the line, with the ever-reliable Jackson’s two making it 24-24.
It could have gone either way in the final moments but as it turned out, it went neither way as Cardiff stole possession at the end and halted Ulster’s strong run.
Tries: Jackson, Penalty Try, Marshall
Cons: Jackson 3
Tries: Warburton, Lee-Lo 2
Cons: Anscombe 3
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Alan O’Connor, 4 Kieran Treadwell, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Andrew Warwick
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Nick Timoney, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Jacob Stockdale, 23 Andrew Trimble
Cardiff Blues: 15 Rhun Williams, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Blaine Scully, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Josh Navidi, 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Ellis Jenkins, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 George Earle, 3 Taufa’ao Filise, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins
Replacements: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Corey Domachowski, 18 Kieron Assiratti, 19 James Down, 20 Nick Williams, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Steve Shingler, 23 Matthew Morgan
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Keith Allen (Scotland), Shane Kierans (Ireland)
TMO: Stefano Roscini (Italy)
Edinburgh 19-22 Connacht
Eoin McKeon’s try and four Steve Crosbie kicks put Connacht into a dominant 16-0 lead at the break, with Edinburgh offering very little in attacking threat.
A penalty try and yellow card to Tiernan O’Halloran gave Edinburgh some hope early in the second 40, before Hamish Watson made it very interesting with the hosts second. Glenn Bryce grabbed a third to really worry Connacht, but it was too little too late as Connacht held on for a 22-19 win.
Coming into this one on the back of a horrible run, Edinburgh had the perfect chance to turn their form around as Connacht made the journey to Myreside, a week after the shock loss to Zebre.
Duncan Weir had the chance to kick Edinburgh ahead inside the first five but squandered a penalty, and Steve Crosbie capitalised to boot Connacht three points ahead inside 10 minutes.
The first half an hour was tight but Connacht doubled their advantage through Crosbie, his penalties the only dividing line between the sides.
That was until McKeon grabbed the first try right on 30 minutes. Kieran Marmion did the work in the build up, making good distance in possession before feeding the back-row for the opener. Crosbie’s two made it 13-0 to the visitors.
Weir missed a second effort as Edinburgh continued to struggle, and Crosbie once again showed him how it’s done as he made it four successful kicks for the evening. And with a 16-0 lead at the break, it looked like job done for Connacht.
The second half didn’t start any better as another Crosbie three pointer stretched the lead even further, with the Myreside crowd offered little in terms of encouragement by their side.
Crosbie was in fine form, with the young outhalf getting another three to further enhance the Connacht lead.
Edinburgh did finally produce something though and when it came, it was well worked.
A penalty try was the award after Connacht struggled to hold back the hosts, and a yellow to O’Halloran was given for an infringement in the build-up. And no sooner had O’Halloran left the field, Edinburgh were right back in the tie.
A second try followed almost immediately as Watson forced through the defence to go in under the posts, and when the third came, it really was anybody’s game.
Coming in the final seven minutes, Bryce barged through after Sam Hidalgo-Clyne found him. Weir missed his kick again though, with Edinburgh still trailing 19-22 as the clock ran down. And it proved not to be enough as Connacht held on and continued the hosts miserable run of form.
Tries: Penalty Try, Watson, Bryce
Cons: Weir 2
Pens: Crosbie 5
Yellow Card: O’Halloran
Edinburgh: 15 Glenn Bryce, 14 Damien Hoyland 13 Chris Dean, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Rory Scholes, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Nathan Fowles, 8 Viliami Fihaki, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 Viliame Mata, 5 Ben Toolis, 4 Fraser McKenzie, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Ross Ford (c), 1 Murray McCallum
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Derrick Appiah, 18 Kevin Bryce, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Jamie Ritchie, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Tom Brown, 23 Junior Rasolea
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Danie Poolman, 10 Steve Crosbie, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 John Muldoon (c), 7 Jake Heenan, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 Andrew Browne, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Dominic Robertson-McCoy, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 JP Cooney, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 James Cannon, 20 Sean O’Brien, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Josh Rowland
Referee: Dan Jones (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Sean Brickell (Wales), Lloyd Linton (Scotland)
TMO: Alan Falzone (Italy)