Ulster picked up their first win in all competitions since September as three second half tries and a near-perfect kicking display from Paddy Wallace helped them past Connacht in Friday’s Interprovincial clash at the Sportsground.
Connacht had not beaten Ulster for almost two years and although they lived with the former champions for much of this encounter, the westerners lacked the finishing power of the visitors and ultimately paid the price.
Ulster caretaker coach Steve Williams selected the same team which missed out on beating Bourgoin in Europe last week, while Connacht boss Michael Bradley, sporting some fine locks in aid of charity, made three changes to the side that hammered Cetransa El Salvador.
The hosts welcomed back Mel Deane, Conor McPhillips and Johnny O’Connor and the latter was making a nuisance of himself early on in Galway by smothering Isaac Boss at the breakdown.
The Connacht number 7 did infringe at a sixth-minute ruck, allowing Paddy Wallace to boot Ulster in front and in what was a poor quality first half, place kicks proved crucial.
With play cramped between the 22s, neither side looked like they would breakthrough for a try. Ulster’s lineout looked solid early on, while Connacht should have made more of some midfield turnovers, with Tim Donnelly failing to get his backs moving.
Wallace doubled Ulster’s lead after 33 minutes when he knocked a central penalty through the uprights after Connacht hooker Adrian Flavin had infringed at a ruck.
Ulster tried to turn the screw late in the half as they searched for an elusive try but their error count was frustratingly high and Connacht’s defence swarmed over the men in the white.
A knock on from Paul Steinmetz allowed the hosts to end the half on the up and they took advantage as Ulster took out a main at an injury-time lineout and Donnelly kicked the resulting penalty with the last kick of the half.
The game looked to be turning in Connacht’s favour when just after Ulster flanker Neil Best was yellow carded for a deliberate knock on, home centre Danny Riordan gobbled up a loose ball and raced through for a 50th-minute try.
Donnelly converted for a 10-6 Connacht lead but Ulster managed to strike back within three minutes.
They caught the hosts asleep on the blindside as Matt McCullough claimed a close-in lineout, Isaac Boss fed a peeling Kieron Dawson and the former Ireland flanker’s arcing run ended with him diving over in the right corner, past Conor McPhillips.
Wallace added the extras before replacement fly half Andy Dunne, who was making his competitive debut for Connacht, levelled the game at 13-13 with a smartly struck penalty.
Dunne, just back from knee surgery, made his presence felt with a number of midfield breaks but Connacht could not capitalise and Ulster came good in the final quarter.
Wallace nosed Ulster back in front with his third penalty and although he blotted his copybook with a late miss, he succeeded in converting tries for Carlo Del Fava (63 minutes) and Roger Wilson (80+1) as Ulster ended their winless run.
Man-of-the-match Wallace had a hand in both tries – he spun a pass out to the left, after Connacht’s defence had been sucked in, for Del Fava to touch down and the Ulster number 10 initiated the left wing attack which led to Wilson charging over in injury-time.
The final score was flattering to Ulster and Connacht, who turned in another committed display, did deserve something out of the game as they fell behind in the race to become one of Ireland’s qualifiers for next season’s Heineken Cup.