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Timely URC upset as noisy neighbours Connacht scalp unbeaten Ulster

By Liam Heagney

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A decent match and a very decent outcome for the complexion of this revamped United Rugby Championship. The off-season promise had been that a more intense tournament was in the pipeline only for the opening rounds to insist otherwise.

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Watching four-in-a-row champions Leinster blazing a familiar trail – with only similarly unbeaten neighbours Ulster and Munster in their slipstream as the rest, including Connacht, struggled to keep pace – wasn’t a good look for those who claim this expanded five-nation URC product is superior to anything that has gone before it.  

However, now we have some tangible evidence that there can indeed be appetising upset results to get excited about and it was only fair that it was Connacht who were responsible for this 36-11, five tries to one ambush. They had come within a whisker of upsetting Munster last weekend, a last-gasp try the only reason why they were denied that precious scalp. 

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Ex-England skipper Chris Robshaw guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload
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Ex-England skipper Chris Robshaw guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload

But in their temporary Aviva Stadium home in Dublin, they made up for that late Limerick steal by being full value for their comprehensive win over Ulster. As soon as there was a fifth-minute dust-up under the posts, you knew you were in for an enticing derby affair and that needle continued to give the 9,875 in attendance every reason to be very boisterous about what they were seeing.     

Aside from last week’s painful denouement at Thomond Park, Connacht were handed further incentive to be a bruising nuisance when Andy Farrell’s latest Ireland squad was unveiled in midweek.

That selection score read Ulster 7 Connacht 3 by way of representation and with Bundee Aki being monitored for a knee injury and reducing the western province to just two Test squad members for this URC fixture, it took quite a ferocious effort led by tackle king Conor Oliver and prominent ball carrier Paul Boyle to have them deservedly leading the unbeaten northerners 17-6 at the break.

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The opening stanza initially suggested the force would be with Ulster but they didn’t possess the composure or the tact to make good their regular visits to the Connacht 22. Instead, it was Andy Friend’s upstarts who twice got over the whitewash and got people up from their seats in enthusiastic salute.

Niall Murray led the way, blasting onto a sweet ball on the 22 to just about make it to the line on twelve minutes, and there were further sprint heroics 13 minutes later when Mack Hansen said thank you very much to an ill-advised Billy Burns pass and away went the unstoppable Connacht winger.

In reply, Nathan Doak was two from three from the penalty kicking tee, with Jack Carty landing one in reply before the first half ended in a card show from referee Andy Brace, Alan O’Connor dispatched for a fight-causing cheap shot on Dave Heffernan before Connacht cheaply coughed up that numerical advantage just four minutes later when Ultan Dillane was penalised. 

Ultimately, there were 27 penalties in this match, 15 against Connacht, yet the breakdown was a mostly enjoyably contestable area and some reversed penalties only added to the fun of a fair that continued to play out at a healthy tempo in the second period, although without any scores occurring for quite a considerable time. Connacht were the team with the most regret as they were primarily doing the pressing in the right areas. 

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They eventually came good, though, on 62 minutes in a pure training ground fashion off the set-piece. There were five passes off scrum ball, a pair of defence-distracting decoy runners and it all ended sweetly with winger John Porch getting enough of an edge to make it in at the corner for the unconverted try.

Three minutes later, Burns had his pocket picked again with a telegraphed pass, replacement Diarmuid Kilgallen racing away from halfway for the converted score that netted Connacht their bonus and left them a whopping 29-6 clear. 

Only now did Ulster muster a response, sub hooker Brad Roberts going over from a 68th-minute maul, but it was a tiny consolation and this URC upset had its correct final say with Hansen profiting off ruck turnover ball on halfway to add a clock in the red converted try to leave the margin at 25 points. Five-try Connacht, take a well-deserved bow! 

 

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Timely URC upset as noisy neighbours Connacht scalp unbeaten Ulster

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