VIDEO: Connacht dent Ulster title dreams
PRO14 MATCH REPORT: Semifinalists Ulster were pegged back in their pursuit of a first title since 2005/06.
They were trumped 26-20 by fellow Irishmen Connacht in their penultimate match of the regular season in Dublin.
John Cooney kicked Ulster ahead, but smart tries from John Porch and Kieran Marmion gave Connacht a 14-6 half-time lead, on their first trip to Irish Rugby headquarters since 1989.
Jacob Stockdale and Nick Timoney scored either side of Bundee Aki’s try on his 100th Connacht appearance, but Jack Aungier made sure of the bonus point as the 2015/16 champions were ultimately too strong on the teams’ first meeting outside of Belfast or Galway.
Following their first defeat against their fellow countrymen in three, Ulster will be desperate to return to winning ways against Leinster ahead of the coveted Final Series, while Connacht will be hoping to finish with a flurry against Munster.
Glasgow Warriors’ defeat to Edinburgh on Saturday meant Ulster’s place in the semi-finals was mathematically secure ahead of kick-off, but the Belfast-based side were fast out of the blocks, with Marcell Coetzee forcing the first kickable penalty of the game.
Cooney subsequently put his side 3-0 up from the tee in the sixth minute, but Connacht hit back immediately, going ahead through a well-worked team try, finished off by Australian Porch.
Andy Friend’s men demonstrated plenty of patience and purpose as they went through the phases, and clever offloads from Denis Buckley and Jack Carty opened up the space for Porch, with Carty duly adding the extras.
Connacht – whose top-two hopes had been dashed by Munster’s bonus point in their defeat to Leinster on Saturday – largely dominated the next ten minutes of play, but Cooney was afforded the chance to reduce Ulster’s deficit to 7-6 after Paul Boyle conceded a penalty with 20 minutes gone.
But Connacht again responded immediately with another silky move, Marmion collecting Porch’s grubber kick to go over after the ball was passed through the hands of both backs and forwards in green colours.
Carty’s conversion stretched the Galway-side’s lead to eight points, and after demonstrating such attacking prowess, Connacht’s defence proved their worth by successfully holding the ball up shortly before the break following a powerful drive from the Ulster pack.
Gavin Thornbury was stretchered off with injury just moments into the restart, and Connacht’s defence was called upon again at the start of the second half, once more holding up the ball successfully following Ulster pressure, spearheaded by Stuart McCloskey making impressive ground.
But Dan McFarland’s men were finally rewarded for their persistent attacking threat, Billy Burns spreading the ball out to Stockdale who duly went over before Burns converted to make it 14-13 with less than half-an-hour to go.
Tom Farrell thought he had stretched Connacht’s advantage once more after bulldozing over following a lineout maul, but after the score was ruled out following a review, Aki made the most of the penalty restart by driving over for the points.
Carty added the extras, but Jonny Murphy was sent to the sin bin for multiple infringements with 20 minutes to go, creating space that allowed Timoney to squeeze through and put the ball down, before Ian Madigan kicked Ulster to within one point of their opponents.
The teams shared possession in the game’s late stages, but the return of Murphy helped Connacht gradually grind down a weary-looking Ulster, and Aungier had the final say of the day with a try on his debut for the nominal home side.
Player of the Match – John Porch
There were plenty of candidates among the Connacht squad that could stake a claim for the Player of the Match accolade, but John Porch stood out with an incredible all-round performance, topped off with a brilliant first-half score.
The 26-year-old set his team on their way by going over for the game’s first try, while he played a big part in Kieran Marmion’s score soon after, and contributed plenty of attacking and defensive threat throughout the 80 minutes.
Play of the Day
Connacht set the match alight with two brilliantly worked team tries in a blistering first half, and John Porch’s opener was certainly among the moments of the day, with some smart work from Denis Buckley and Jack Carty forcing the opportunity.
But Kieran Marmion’s effort 11 minutes later was very easy on the eye, with backs and forwards alike called upon to contribute to a flowing move that opened up a gap in the Ulster defence.
Marmion’s initial pass from the ruck started the move, before clever offloads from Finlay Bealham, Carty and Alex Wootton spread the ball out to Porch, who kicked into space for the Ireland international to collect and dot down shortly after the halfway point in the opening period.
Tries: Porch, Marmion, Aki, Aungier
Cons: Carty 3
Tries: Stockdale, Timoney
Cons: Burns, Madigan
Pens: Cooney 2
Yellow card: Jonny Murphy (Connacht, 59)
Connacht: 15 John Porch, 14 Peter Sullivan, 13 Tom Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Alex Wootton, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Paul Boyle, 7 Jarrad Butler (captain), 6 Eoghan Masterson, 5 Gavin Thornbury, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Dave Heffernan, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Jonny Murphy, 17 Jordan Duggan, 18 Jack Aungier, 19 Niall Murray, 20 Conor Oliver, 21 Stephen Kerins, 22 Conor Dean, 23 Tom Daly.
Ulster: 15 Jacob Stockdale, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 James Hume, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Louis Ludik, 10 Billy Burns (captain), 9 John Cooney, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Nick Timoney, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 4 Alan O’Connor, 3 Marty Moore, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Adam McBurney, 17 Eric O’Sullivan, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Sam Carter, 20 Matthew Rea, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Michael Lowry.
Referee: Frank Murphy
Assistant referees: Sean Gallagher, Chris Busby
TMO: Olly Hodges