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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
James Crombie/INPHO Connacht’s Finlay Bealham tackled by Rob Herring and Billy Burns of Ulster.

Connacht rock the URC with stunning win over Ulster to reach semi-finals

Andy Friend’s men were thoroughly deserved winners and will now travel to South Africa.

Ulster 10

Connacht 15

CONNACHT’S PLAY-OFF HOPES looked marginal at one stage early on this season. Few would have bet on them reaching the URC semi-finals but that’s where Andy Friend’s side find themselves.

They stunned Ulster in Belfast to reach the last four. This was no smash-and-grab though, it was a richly deserved victory that really should have been by a greater margin but for missed chances.

In the end, captain Jack Carty’s five penalties were enough to win it as the westerners survived a final-quarter onslaught from an Ulster team that was otherwise very poor indeed.

This was a miserable end to the northern province’s season and certainly adds fuel to the chatter that Dan McFarland’s squad are not in the happiest of places. Having done so well to earn home advantage for this quarter-final and a possible semi-final, they have simply blown another big opportunity.

Their attacking bluntness was in contrast to Connacht’s energy and invention, while the Ulster discipline was poor too. They lacked the kind of accuracy and breakdown quality that is needed in play-off rugby and the home crowd was left dispirited and dejected.   

For the travelling Connacht fans, there was sheer elation as they earned their place in the semi-finals, where they will travel to South Africa next weekend to face either the Stormers or the Bulls.

This is an immense reward for their superb form in recent weeks as they have blasted their way into contention. This all has a bang of 2016 about it. 

Led by the brilliant Kiwi flanker Shamus Hurley-Langton, Connacht battled for every scrap and really should have been further ahead than 9-3 at half-time. The second half was more fraught and at one stage, Ulster seized ominous momentum but Friend’s men weren’t to be denied. Their immense breakdown work was key to sealing the deal.

tempers-flare-between-the-sides James Crombie / INPHO There was plenty of spice in Belfast. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Both teams took their time to settle into the contest as they exchanged early breakdown penalties and knock-ons, but it was Connacht who really should have struck the first blow only to miss a string of chances.

First, Carty’s snap drop-goal attempt was wide after they built some attacking momentum, then they knocked on from a five-metre tap penalty routine, and in the 18th minute they spurned a glorious opportunity.

On that occasion, tip-on passes by Josh Murphy and Finlay Bealham found centre Tom Farrell, whose big dummy fooled Stuart McCloskey and allowed him to break. Farrell only had to pass to scrum-half Caolin Blade on his inside for a near-certain try but with time and space to do so, he instead opted to dummy and was tackled by Mike Lowry.

The Ulster fullback was forced off injured for his troubles, replaced by Stewart Moore, but Ulster survived that Connacht attack and the home side were soon down the other end after a sharp Rob Baloucoune offload created space and Connacht’s Cian Prendergast was caught offside. John Cooney slotted the three points with 21 minutes played.

Connacht levelled quickly after Ulster gave up back-to-back breakdown penalties through McCloskey, David McCann and Rory Sutherland, with Carty on target off the tee for 3-3.

The visitors soon threatened again via slick handling from the likes of Bealham, Niall Murray, and Farrell’s silky offload, but a John Porch knock-on allowed Baloucoune and Cooney to counter, the Ulster scrum-half beating Carty on the outside and grubbering ahead but then giving up a penalty for diving down into Tiernan O’Halloran on the ground. 

rory-sutherland-and-finlay-bealham James Crombie / INPHO Finlay Bealham on the charge for Connacht. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Connacht deservedly edged ahead in the 34th minute after a breakdown turnover from the influential and impactful Hurley-Langton allowed Prendergast to kick ahead into the Ulster 22, snaffle Baloucoune, forcing Jacob Stockdale off his feet at the breakdown.

Leading 6-3, Connacht then broke out of their own 22 as Conor Oliver’s offload freed Blade, who found Hurley-Langton, with the flanker smashing through Balououne’s tackle, before Farrell dinked ahead to draw a knock-on from Moore. But Carty’s misplaced pass from the ensuing scrum attack allowed Ulster to break out and the Connacht out-half high-tackled James Hume as he retreated.

Ulster’s effort to draw level was frustrated first by a Murphy lineout steal, then another breakdown turnover by Hurley-Langton, the latter of which again saw Connacht break from deep in their half.

Two penalty concessions by McCloskey followed swiftly, a high tackle on Blade and a breakdown offence, meaning Carty concluded the half with his third penalty for a 9-3 advantage. 

He was able to extend that just four minutes into the second half as a big scrum penalty allowed Carty to make it a nine-point lead, the ball nudging in off the left post.

Bundee Aki’s breakdown turnover penalty two minutes later only added to the sense of Connacht momentum as their travelling support grew. They hammered into carries up to the five-metre line but McCloskey cleverly forced a knock-on from Blade as he grabbed his arm while on his feet in a ruck five metres from Ulster’s line.

jack-carty-kicks-a-penalty James Crombie / INPHO Jack Carty kicks a penalty for Connacht. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Hurley-Langton’s smashing carry from the next lineout put Connacht in striking range once again but, once again, they came away empty-handed from close range as Aki misplaced his pass with multiple good options outside him.

Still, Ulster kept inviting them in. Rob Herring failed to release in the tackle and Connacht went back to work in the 22. This time, Ulster’s excellent defensive work got them out of trouble as they hammered Connacht carriers until Murray was done for sealing as Duane Vermeulen jackaled.

McFarland’s men desperately needed something in attack too and it was Baloucoune who finally gave them an injection of momentum in the 60th minute as he beat Prendergast to scorch into the Connacht 22. But Mack Hansen – who had returned from a first-half HIA – was on hand to scythe him down and then win a breakdown turnover just two phases later. 

The home side had a sniff now though, with replacement hooker Tom Stewart breaking off a maul to win a penalty that they sent into the left corner. Their maul was dragged down the first time but second time around, Stewart darted to within inches, then captain Alan O’Connor picked and dived over gleefully.

Cooney’s conversion had Ulster back within two points with 15 minutes left and the Ulster fans having found new gusto. 

john-cooney Bryan Keane / INPHO John Cooney lines up a shot at goal. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Replacement back row Jordi Murphy’s jackal penalty allowed Ulster swiftly back into the Connacht 22, where Baloucoune’s surging carry and stunning one-handed offload nearly sent Vermeulen over in the right corner, only for Hansen to drag him over the touchline.

But what looked like a Connacht lineout was turned into an Ulster one as the replays showed that Hansen’s hand had dislodged the ball and into touch. With 70 minutes on the clock, it felt like Ulster would batter over again but their maul was repelled and then Aki won another massive breakdown turnover in a game full of them.

But now it was Connacht who were inviting Ulster in. They overthrew a lineout for the next heart-in-mouth passage of defence, only to see replacement hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin jackal over a tackle, drawing Murphy in from the side.

Connacht needed greater reprieve and it was sub scrum-half Kieran Marmion who came up trumps, making a darting break down the shortside off the ensuing lineout, all the way up to Ulster’s 22-metre line, where Billy Burns came offside at the ruck.

Carty steadied himself over the tee in the 76th minute and nailed the penalty for a 15-10 lead that Connacht had to fight desperately to cling onto in the dying moments of the game. Tierney-Martin came up with the final brilliant turnover to spark the celebrations.

Ulster scorers:

Tries: Alan O’Connor

Conversions: John Cooney [1 from 1]

Penalties: John Cooney [1 from 1]

Connacht scorers:

Penalties: Jack Carty [5 from 5]

ULSTER: Mike Lowry (Stewart Moore ’19); Rob Baloucoune, James Hume (Craig Gilroy ’66), Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney (Nathan Doak ’73); Rory Sutherland (Eric O’Sullivan ’79), Rob Herring (Tom Stewart ’59), Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (Gareth Milasinovich ‘HT); Alan O’Connor (captain), Kieran Treadwell (Sam Carter ’59); Dave McCann, Nick Timoney (Jordi Murphy ’59), Duane Vermeulen.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran (Tom Daly ’69); John Porch, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen (HIA – Byron Ralston ’27 to ‘HT); Jack Carty (captain), Caolin Blade (Kieran Marmion ’66); Denis Buckley (Jordan Duggan ’66), Dave Heffernan (Dylan Tierney-Martin ’57), Finlay Bealham (Jack Aungier ’57); Josh Murphy, Niall Murray (Oisín Dowling ’57); Shamus Hurley-Langton, Conor Oliver, Cian Prendergast (Jarrad Butler ’63). 

Referee: Andrew Brace [IRFU].

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