United Rugby Championship: Five takeaways from Ulster v Connacht as Galway outfit pilfer their way to victory

Colin Newboult

2K89PX2 Cian Prendergast of Connacht after the United Rugby Championship Round 6 match between Connacht Rugby and Scarlets at the Sportsground in Galway, Ireland on October 21, 2022 (Photo by Andrew SURMA/ SIPA USA).

Following Connacht’s 15-10 United Rugby Championship triumph over Ulster in Belfast on Friday, Planet Rugby picks out five takeaways from the action.

Old school knockout game

The URC derbies have been good value this season, and this inter-pro match did not disappoint. While Ulster and Connacht have lit up the league with stylish attacking plays and terrific tries, Friday’s encounter was the opposite. It wasn’t that both sides couldn’t get their attacks firing, but rather that the defences were on top of their games while the breakdown was a fierce battleground.

In recent seasons, play-off matches have often turned into high-scoring affairs with teams trying to outscore one another, but the clash at the Kingspan was a glorious throwback to grinding out a result.

The match’s only try came from Ulster lock Alan O’Connor who managed to squeeze his way over the line from close range. While much was made of Jack Carty’s kicking form before the game, he returned to his accurate best, nailing all five of his shots at goal to clinch a semi-final spot.

Just because it was an ‘old school knockout game’, does not mean it was a boring encounter. It was a contest with plenty of twists and turns as the momentum swung throughout, and the home fans cheered and jeered at every blast of the referee’s whistle.

A game of incredibly tight margins, a missed cover tackle on Duane Vermeulen in the latter stages could have left Connacht ruing their clear-cut chance to score their only try in the first half. It was there for the taking for both sides, but Andy Friend’s side did enough to seal the win.

Connacht’s breakdown brilliance

There was a case in 2015 when Exeter Chiefs had a player sin-binned for conceding a string of holding on penalties. That had rarely, if ever, been seen before that encounter and, to our knowledge, certainly not since, but this is as close as you will ever get to it being repeated.

Coincidently, it was Irish referee John Lacey who brandished that yellow card just under eight years ago, and Andrew Brace was the man here who consistently rewarded Connacht’s brilliance at the contact area. Ulster could not get any momentum as the Galway-based side turned them over at will at the breakdown.

The back-row (more on them below) were obviously superb and key to the win, but pretty much every player in that 23 proved to be a threat over the ball. From the front-row to the back three, and Bundee Aki in between, the hosts failed to shift them away from the tighter exchanges.

Ulster devoid of ideas

The Mike Tyson quote of, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’, rang true for Ulster in this match as they charged into the play-offs and were in stellar form, but once Connacht landed the first blow, all previous form went out the window.

Having seemingly got on the same page and hit timely form, Ulster will have been confident that they could knock over their rivals, but looked flat and out of ideas by the time the half-time whistle blew. Luck was still on their side as they managed to keep all 15 players on the pitch, despite several penalties in their half during periods of the game, but it was on attack that they were dull.

Unable to break the Connacht defence open like they have to other teams throughout this season, they lost direction and often resorted to crashing it up hard into the defence. Even in the final passage of play, there was far less whip, accuracy and speed to their attacking patterns than what we have become accustomed to. A credit to the passionate and accurate display produced by the visitors but a disappointing end to a team that thrilled with ball in hand during the regular season.

Back-row reigns supreme

The set-up of Connacht’s back-row raised a few eyebrows before the game as Cian Prendergast shifted from his usual role on the side to pack down at number eight. However, the selection call well and truly paid off, with Shamus Hurley-Langton producing a man-of-the-match performance, while Conor Oliver and Prendergast weren’t too far off from claiming the individual accolade themselves. 

Their ability to stall Ulster’s usually rapid breakdowns proved pivotal in the outcome of the match, with the two flankers landing 33 tackles between them. Hurley-Langton topped the tackle count for his side, making all 18 of his attempted hits while he also made the most carries, gaining 40 metres from his 12 charges into the white Ulster wall. 

Prendergast was a real threat at the breakdown, and while he only made one turnover, it was the Ulster bodies he attracted in that really made the difference. A real pest, in the best way. He made way for Jarrad Butler in the final quarter, and the Australian just picked up from where his teammate left off. 

An unreal effort from the quartet, with hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin and centre Aki lending a hand with back-row-esque work too. 

Ulster’s good work undone

Dan McFarland’s men had a mid-season wobble, putting pressure on their head coach and his players, but they did brilliantly to recover and end the regular season in second place. After the 2021/22 campaign, where they finished third and lost out narrowly to eventual champions Stormers in the semi-finals in Cape Town, they realised how important getting into the top-two was.

Ulster were on a five-match winning run in the URC going into the contest, knowing that a triumph in their quarter-final clash against Connacht would have sealed a crucial home match in the last-four. However, they never really showed up and were comprehensively outplayed by the Galway outfit.

All the credit will quite rightly go to the outstanding visitors, whose sheer ferocity up front was outstanding but, if you’re an Ulster fan, you will be incredibly angry right now. It was not a performance befitting of a knockout game from the hosts, and the pressure will inevitably increase on head coach McFarland.

READ MORE: United Rugby Championship: Connacht stun Ulster to muscle their way into the semi-finals