Ulster crept towards the Pro12 play-off places with a hard-fought win over Irish rivals Connacht in Belfast on Friday.
The hosts led throughout the game and dominated their provincial counterparts with a performance built on accuracy and defensive grit.
Tries from Stuart McCloskey and Clive Ross were enough for Ulster prevail and undoubtedly the hosts were far more clinical in their performance. Paddy Jackson also continued his glorious form with the boot, landing three penalties and two conversions.
Connacht, as ever, looked good with ball in hand and you couldn’t fault their endeavour. Unfortunately for the Galway men, they didn’t create enough clear cut chances and struggled to breach a very well organised Ulster defence.
In the end, the westerners only had a Jack Carty try, converted by himself, to show for their efforts. Less Kiss’s men will certainly feel much better than they did a few weeks ago and seem to be gaining some form as 2016 draws to a close.
The game started brightly with both sides eager to run the ball despite the poor conditions. Needless to say, handling errors was the order of the day as the rain came bucketing down in Belfast.
Ulster, especially, would have been concerned by the early penalty count, as the home side fell a foul of George Clancy. In the end, it was Ulster that struck first on 20 minutes when Jackson struck a sweet penalty after Connacht were penalised at the breakdown.
The hosts followed that upon 27 minutes with a well-worked try. Charles Piutau took the ball at pace and cut the Connacht defence to shreds. He couldn’t finish, though, and the ball was recycled to Luke Marshall who put McCloskey over for the first try. Jackson converted to give his side a 10-0 lead.
Connacht, for their part, looked sprightly with ball in hand, but were too reliant on the sniping runs of Kieran Marmion and the pace of fullback Tiernan O’Halloran. And it got worse for the western province on 36 minutes when Jackson extended Ulster’s lead to 13 after Danie Poolman was penalised for failing to roll away. As the half-time whistle sounded, therefore, the Belfast side was firmly in control of the contest.
And it was all Ulster at the start of the second half, too. Pienaar seemed to have got over for another try on 50 minutes but the TMO ruled it out. However, less than two minutes later, flanker Ross barged over from close range; Jackson converting again. Connacht hit back almost immediately, though.
A fine counter attack that saw O’Halloran break the line once again culminated in fly-half Carty getting over for a deserved try. The Connacht ten followed that up with a brilliant conversion that reduced the deficit to 20-7.
But Ulster regained the initiative on 68 minutes when Jackson slotted another penalty after the Connacht pack was pinged following an almighty shove by the Ulster eight. The visitors tried valiantly to get back into it after that, but the resolute Ulster defence refused to concede an inch, allowing the Ravenhill men to secure the festive spoils.
Tries: McCloskey, Ross
Cons: Jackson 2
Pens: Jackson 3
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Clive Ross, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Kieran Treadwell, 3 Rodney Ah You, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Andrew Warwick
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Wiehahn Herbst, 19 Franco van der Merwe, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Darren Cave, 23 Tommy Bowe
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Rory Parata, 12 Danie Poolman, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 John Muldoon (c), 7 Nepia Fox-Matamua, 6 Sean O’Brien, 5 James Cannon, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Dave Heffernan, 1 Denis Buckley
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 Tom McCartney, 18 JP Cooney, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Ciaran Gaffney, 23 Naulia Dawai
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)