Eric Elwood is coming to the end of year two at the helm. Year one saw him inherit a side on one year contracts with an uncertain future. The PGB emerged from that quagmire and after the administrative challenge of conducting contract renewals with a squad of 36 all at once, some key men were lost.
This season has been about starting again, embracing the Heineken Cup exposure and making the best of a wave of new punters who snapped up season tickets. There was time to really focus on recruitment and nail down some long term contracts from within but all the while everything was going well bar the results but slowly over a refreshing spring, the on-field stuff seems to be coming together.
Ulster coach Brian McLoughlin rang the changes from the Munster triumph the previous week, retaining just three, but history shows that Connacht sides invariably struggle to capitlise in such inter-provincial match ups, this side seems to be bucking trends in all sorts of areas and that’s another.
Connacht were much the better side in the first ten minutes scoring early through a Miah Nikora penalty before stretching the lead to eight when Nikora scored from 10 metres, beating Robbie Diack on the outside out after some sustained pressure. It was a neat finish by the out half who is playing heads up, snappy rugby.
Ulster were let creep back into the contest however through the boot of Paddy Jackson who kicked two penalties after Ian Humphries had missed his first two shots at goal. Those scores had come during Ronan Loughney’s sin binning for a late hit on Humphries and in discipline at the breakdown was costing Connacht who were lucky to still be in front.
Despite all that, Connacht still looked the more dangerous in open play and Gavin Duffy notched a second try on the half hour mark after some fine work on the short side by Henry Fa’affli and Kyle Tonetti who timed his pass perfectly to draw the man and send the Mayo native flying over in the corner for try number six of a prolific season.
Yet it was Ulster who pounced back levelling the score at 13 apiece with a try from scrum half Paul Marshall. That all stemmed from a laser like touch finding kick from Stephan Terblanche and a botched lineout from the home side on their own line. To make matters worse, the pillar defence wasn’t in place and Marshall just had to pick and dive over. Jackson converted and added a penalty on half time to make it 16-13.
The restart saw a pent up Connacht got to work on the away side and build towards a brilliant try. John Muldoon showed some nifty footwork and took a great line in the build up to put his side on the front foot. Two phases later, the Portumna man was involved again disguising a deft backdoor pass just enough to cause the scrambling Ulster defence to hesitate and leave a gap for Tiernan O’Halloran.
The Clifden born winger used his sharp acceleration in a tight channel and burst home from 22 metres for his seventh try of the season. The Connacht back three including Duffy and Fetu’ Vainikolo now have 16 of Connacht’s 36 tries this season. That’s nearly 50% of the total and considering the Tongan has only found his feet in the spring, next season seems promising in terms of finishing options.
photos (C) www.inpho.ie James Crombie
That try had the home supporter in raptures and after a hugely influential Nikora slotted the conversion, the lead was up to four yet Ulster then had their best spell of the contest. Ten minutes of sustained possession led to Jackson scoring their second try barging over the line with Nikora underneath him but unable to prevent the score.
Ulster led by one but Connacht remained patient. A barnstorming run by the colossal George Naoupu paved the way for a kickable penalty which Nikora slotted to restore the lead and the out half – who kept the backline moving with incisive long range passing – kicked another with ten minutes remaining to stretch the advantage to five.
Connacht defended well to the end, backline tackling from Tonetti and Vainikolo stood out, up front Johnny O’Connor marked his return from injury with a pulsating 70 minutes after he replaced Ray Ofisa. Sin bins for Michael Swift and Lewis Stevenson after a scuffle had no effect but Ali Birch’s binning for back chat with eight minutes to go before Nikora’s last penalty probably sealed Ulster’s fate.