Ulster closed the gap on league leaders Connacht with an 18-10 win at Ravenhill on Friday in the PRO12.
It wasn’t the prettiest of victories, but the Belfast club won’t care as they out fought the league leaders with a gritty and resilient performance built on defensive organisation.
Ulster were supremely physical all evening, and their line speed and aggression forced the western province to play behind the gain-line. The PRO12 pacesetters had been hampered by injuries prior to the game, and the hosts took full advantage as they capitalised on the inexperience of Connacht fly-half Shane O’Leary.
Ulster led throughout this hard-fought derby, as tries from the superb Rory Best and Craig Gilroy put the hosts in the driving seat.
Those scores were supplemented by two Paddy Jackson penalties, and the Irish ten also converted Gilroy’s try. Connacht got back into the contest with an excellent try by replacement Caolin Blade, converted by O’Leary to add to his second half penalty, but the Galway club fell away amid a flurry of indiscipline. Connacht will come back, but Ulster needed to win this one more and Les Kiss’s men stay in playoff contention after this scrappy win.
Connacht started the game playing positive rugby, but their early effort was punctuated by handling errors. Jackson got the hosts on the score sheet first with a sweetly struck fifth minute penalty. And the Irish fly-half doubled the advantage on 12 minutes following a sustained period of Ulster pressure, driven by their extremely aggressive defence.
Connacht responded manfully, with John Muldoon leading the charge by making several trademark surges. Ulster weathered the storm well, though, and it was the Ravenhill men that struck next.
The hosts won a penalty just outside the Connacht 22 on 27 minutes. Despite the penalty looking very kickable, skipper Best elected to go for the corner. Franco van der Merwe claimed the lineout, and the Belfast side launched a rolling maul – bolstered by several backs – that proved unstoppable, with hooker Best eventually coming up with the ball. Jackson missed the conversion to leave Ulster 11-0 in credit.
The league leaders, although squandering much possession, were playing better than the score suggested, and O’Leary belatedly opened their account with a superb penalty on the half-time whistle.
It was all Ulster at the start of the second half, though, and the second try had an air of inevitability about it. Ruan Pienaar secured ball the visitors 22 and with the Connacht defence lined up to the right, the scrum half cleverly switched the point of attack to find Jared Payne who neatly passed inside for Gilroy to score. Jackson converted to give Ulster an 18-3 lead.
Connacht's cause were helped when Andrew Trimble was sent to the sin-bin shortly after, but frustratingly struggled to make the numerical advantage count.
The pressure eventually told, though, and the visitors successfully got over the whitewash on 55 minutes. A poor Ulster clearance was punished when the visitors launched a lovely counter attack, putting the ball through several pairs of hands, notably Muldoon and Eoin McKeon, and finally finished by replacement Blade. O’Leary converted to reduce the gap to eight.
Ulster seemed to have increased their tally on 65 minutes, meanwhile, when Best crashed over in the corner. Dudley Phillips referred upstairs, but the TMO disallowed the try.
Connacht’s slim hopes collapsed in an ugly wave of indiscipline as both O’Leary and Sean O’Brien were shown late yellow cards, for a high tackle and killing the ball respectively.
The 13-man Galway club showed tremendous tenacity at the death, however, with Robbie Henshaw continuing to sparkle, but Ulster shut up shop to grab a vital win that keeps them firmly in the hunt.
Tries: Best, Gilroy
Pens: Jackson 2
Yellow Card: Trimble
Yellow Card: O'Brien, O'Leary
Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Iain Henderson, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Pete Browne, 3 Ricky Lutton, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Callum Black
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Kyle McCall, 18 Bronson Ross, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Stuart Olding, 23 Darren Cave
Connacht: 15 Robbie Henshaw, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Peter Robb, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Shane O'Leary, 9 John Cooney, 8 Eoin McKeon, 7 James Connolly, 6 John Muldoon (c), 5 Aly Muldowney, 4 Andrew Browne, 3 Rodney Ah You, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Ronan Loughney, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Sean O'Brien, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Cormac Brennan, 23 Danie Poolman
Referee: Dudley Phillips (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Gary Conway (Ireland), Nigel Correll (Ireland)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)