Ulster overcome Connacht
April 22, 2011
Fly-half Ian Humphreys
© Getty Images
Ulster kept their Magners League play-off hopes just about alive going into the final round of regular games with a 27-16 victory over Connacht at Ravenhill on Friday night, although their failure to gain a bonus point means they are no longer in control of their own destiny.
The hard-fought win takes Brian McLaughlin's men to second in the table ahead of Saturday's games involving fellow top four chasers Leinster and the Ospreys, with Ulster having one more game to play, at the Dragons. The result puts Ulster two points ahead of Leinster and three points in front of Cardiff Blues, who failed to manage a bonus point win over Treviso last night - but have a game in hand.
Ulster needed to secure maximum points but it did not work out that way thanks to a combination of their own errors and Connacht's opportunism and they ended up scoring tries from Rory Best, Adam D'Arcy and Darren Cave - with Ian Humphreys kicking 12 points.
Ulster's urgency to get the scoreboard moving saw them open the scoring after only six minutes when Connacht's defence lost the run of D'Arcy, who came steaming through an inside channel off a neat Humphreys pass. The Ulster fullback linked with Darren Cave and the recalled centre drew the remaining defender to put Rory Best over under the sticks. Humphreys' conversion was a formality and Ulster were off and running.
However, their failure to gather the restart allowed the visitors to gain some possession in Ulster territory, which resulted in an Ian Keatley drop goal. Ulster responded by going back on the offensive but errors almost immediately began to creep into their game.
Firstly, Best was penalised for a crooked throw when Ulster had a promising position inside Connacht's 22, then only a last-ditch tackle from D'Arcy prevented Fionn Carr breaking clear after a Humphreys chip had been charged down in the visitors' danger zone. Then Ulster were penalised at a ruck only for Keatley's long-range penalty to sail wide of the posts.
It seemed to spark the home side into life and they managed a dramatic score two minutes after the half-hour mark when a Ruan Pienaar quick tap, inside his own 22, sparked a sweeping move virtually the length of the field. Humphreys got on the end of Pienaar's enterprising break and he sailed past Sean Cronin to put D'Arcy clear - and the fullback ran in from 30 metres.
Humphreys converted and Ulster seemed to have weathered the crisis to lead 14-3 but, in injury-time at the end of the half, Nevin Spence seemed harshly penalised at a ruck and Keatley nailed the penalty from just inside Ulster's half to reduce Ulster's lead to eight points at the break.
The contest continued in much the same vein after the re-start, with Ulster penalised after Dan Tuohy failed to deal with a Carr high kick - but this time the Connacht's outside-half's kick rebounded off the left upright.
Keatley made amends two minutes later when Chris Henry was adjudged to have held on to the tackler and this time the visitors' number 10 put it between the posts to narrow the lead to five points after 47 minutes.
Humphreys then put Ulster eight points clear again with a 48th-minute penalty - but just when the home side needed some composure it was again conspicuous by its absence.
Connacht stole a lineout and Keatley took out two tacklers to offload to Sean Cronin and the Ireland hooker showed great pace to run in from just outside the 22. Keatley's conversion then brought Connacht to a point behind Brian McLaughlin's side.
Ulster needed to respond and eventually did so with a sustained attack which saw Spence, Cave and Best make inroads in a dynamic move which ended up with Ulster being held up over the Connacht line.
They did at least manage to gather up some vital points from their visit to Connacht's 22 when Ronan Loughney was punished for losing his bind - and Humphreys kicked his second penalty with 15 minutes left on the clock.
The try to give them breathing space arrived with six minutes remaining with first phase ball from a scrum being moved left and Humphreys provided Cave with the scoring pass for him to race under the sticks and give Humphreys the conversion to seal it for the hosts.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column
The latest Monday Maul looks at the hectic final weekend, the Lions hangover, the superb Mike Brown and the 'selfie'
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham
"These little deft touches, the nuances O'Driscoll has perfected are what Ireland will miss most." Tom Hamilton on Brian O'Driscoll's final Test in Dublin