United Rugby Championship: Connacht stun Ulster to muscle their way into the semi-finals
Connacht produced a superb forward display, especially at the breakdown, to shock Ulster 15-10 and move into the United Rugby Championship semi-finals.
The visitors controlled the majority of the match, but they were not truly rewarded for their dominance as their opponents remained stubborn when defending their own line.
Instead, Andy Friend’s men had to rely on the boot of their fly-half Jack Carty, who kicked three penalties to John Cooney’s one, to give his side a 9-3 lead at the break.
Carty added another off the tee in the second period as they remained on the front foot, but Ulster’s last-ditch defence was keeping them in the game.
Dan McFarland’s charges had barely fired a shot but, when Alan O’Connor touched down, the hosts looked like they could sneak a victory.
All of a sudden, the momentum had switched and Ulster were on the front foot but, to Connacht’s immense credit, they hit back and extended their buffer to five through their pivot.
The Galway outfit still had to withstand wave after wave of attack in the latter stages but, given their dominance at the contact area, it rather aptly ended on a breakdown turnover.
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Connacht will now travel to South Africa next week to meet the winners of Saturday’s URC quarter-final between the Stormers and the Bulls.
This was only the third time Connacht have beaten Ulster in Belfast since 1960, and each of these wins have been secured since McFarland took over at Ulster in 2018.
After 14 minutes of stalemate, Connacht won a penalty near Ulster’s line and opted to tap and go, only for Dave Heffernan to knock-on which prompted a bout of squabbling between the Irish rivals, which in turn led to a home team penalty after Cian Prendergast appeared to have ignited the situation.
Connacht should have scored on 17 minutes when Tom Farrell held on to the ball with Caolin Blade outside him, which resulted in Michael Lowry’s departure though three minutes later, Ulster opened the scoring when Cooney slotted a penalty after Connacht had strayed offside.
The scores were tied on 24 minutes through Carty’s penalty, and the visitors took the lead eight minutes later when Carty added a second three-pointer from the tee.
With Connacht in the ascendency, Carty kicked his third penalty to make it 9-3 to the visitors at half-time.
Just four minutes after the restart, Carty gave Connacht the perfect start by making it 12-3 after Ulster were penalised at a scrum.
Connacht then butchered several scoring opportunities, and Ulster managed to get on the front-foot with several penalties in the visitors’ 22, which culminated in Tom Stewart breaking off from a maul and skipper O’Connor diving over.
Cooney converted the 64th-minute try, and Ulster had cut Connacht’s lead to 12-10.
However, with tensions rising Ulster were penalised after winning a turnover, and Carty kicked his fifth penalty of the evening, putting the western province five points clear, before they survived the hosts’ last-gasp onslaught.
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