Bundee Aki marked his 100th Connacht appearance with a try in their impressive 26-20 bonus point victory over Guinness Pro14 semi-finalists Ulster at the Aviva Stadium. Two crisply-created scores from John Porch after 11 minutes and Kieran Marmion after 22 had Connacht leading 14-6 at half-time, the westerners looking particularly sharp in their first game at Irish Rugby Football Union HQ since 1989.
Ulster, whose play-off qualification was confirmed by Edinburgh’s win over Glasgow Warriors on Saturday night, could only muster two John Cooney penalties until Jacob Stockdale crossed six minutes into the second half.
Aki and Nick Timoney swapped tries either side of the hour mark before Andy Friend’s men finished the stronger, with young replacement prop Jack Aungier celebrating his debut with the bonus-point effort inside the final two minutes.
Cooney knocked over a long-range fifth-minute opener, rewarding Marcell Coetzee’s efforts at the breakdown.
It was a scrappy start, mired by reset scrums, until Connacht began to blaze a trail towards the try-line.
Alex Wootton, one of five Connacht debutants on the day, stretched his legs up into the opposition 22. With Ultan Dillane carrying hard and Denis Buckley showing soft hands, Ulster’s splintered defence allowed Jack Carty to cleverly throw an overhead pass and send Porch in behind the posts.
Carty’s conversion was followed by a second Cooney penalty, but Connacht were already in a free-flowing mood.
A cracking move down the left wing saw Wootton connect with man-of-the-match Porch, whose left-footed dink infield sat up perfectly for Marmion to touch down.
Carty converted before watching Cooney suffer his only penalty miss in humid conditions.
Ulster’s execution was letting them down, with Adam McBurney held up from a 35th-minute lineout maul and then suffering an overthrow.
Ulster improved their accuracy during the third quarter, although again Stuart McCloskey and McBurney were denied tries from close range.
Direct rugby off a 46th-minute scrum paid off, though, as Billy Burns’ beautifully-floated pass put Stockdale over to the right of the posts.
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Connacht wasted little time in responding, Tom Farrell just losing the ball forward in the act of scoring before centre partner Aki made certain from a subsequent 54th-minute attack.
He powered through Ian Madigan’s attempted tackle to crash in under the posts, with Carty converting.
Madigan soon claimed his first Ulster points, converting number eight Timoney’s try from a five-metre scrum.
Connacht were now down to seven forwards due to replacement hooker Jonny Murphy’s sin-binning for a no-arms tackle.
However, it was they who showed more energy late on as Aki agonisingly fumbled a Jarrad Butler offload out wide, while a Peter Sullivan-led break could have led to points.
That clinching score did come, however, as Aungier burrowed over from a close-in ruck.
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