The battle for the Celtic League title is set to go down to the wire after Ulster staged a magnificent second half fightback in front of more than 7,000 fans at Ravenhill to keep their noses ahead of Llanelli Scarlets at the top of the table.
In typical style, the unsung heroes of Connacht showed exactly why they have been semi-finalists in both the Celtic Cup and the Parker Pen Challenge Cup this season as they paid their hosts no respect and found themselves leading 24-15 at the start of the second half.
Connacht skipper Mark McHugh was once again at the heart of his side’s no frills assault on the league leaders. He kicked three penalties and a conversion to give his side every chance of repeating their 31-20 victory over Ulster at home.
The Connacht pack made huge inroads with their driving maul and it took only two minutes before Conor McPhillips crossed for the first of the game’s seven tries. By half-time, the boot of McHugh, and a second try from Wayne Munn, had hoisted the visitors’ into a 21-15 lead.
To their credit, the Celtic Cup holders kept their chances of doing the double alive with a 10th minute try from back row man Neil McMillan and then set 20-year-old wing Tommy Bowe clear for a 35 metre sprint to the line for a debut try.
The boot, and influence, of David Humphreys began to tell as the first-half wore on and there was no panic in the Ulster dressing room at the break despite the six point deficit.
But things started to look more serious when replacement kicker Dave Hewitt stretched the lead to 24-15 at the start of the second half. Cometh the hour, cometh the experience of Humphreys and home skipper Andy Ward.
A second penalty from the Irish outside half cut the gap and then Ward crashed over in the corner for a try which Humphreys converted superbly to edge Ulster into a 25-24 lead. Hewitt put Connacht ahead again with his second penalty, but Humphreys was quick to reply to make it 28-27.
Connacht coach Michael Bradley then began to ring the changes in his side, no doubt with one eye on next weekend’s Parker Pen Challenge Cup semi-final assignment against NEC Harlequins, and Ulster were able to put their foot on the gas and power to a bonus point victory.
Wing Scott Young was able to pounce on a neat kick ahead by Neil Doak to secure the bonus point and Paddy Wallace rounded off the scoring with try number five to ensure Ulster’s unbeaten home record in the league remained intact.
Humphreys ended the night with 15 points to take his season’s league tally to 91 and the Irishmen are still on top on try count with three games to play.