Ulster see red as Connacht end their 58-year drought in Belfast
Dismissal of flanker Rea for taking a man out in the air a key turning point Scrum dominance in first half laid the foundation for visitors’ victory
It finally happened. Connacht did what many felt was beyond them by finally ending the 58-year hoodoo of not winning in Belfast and deservedly so too.
As the Fields of Athenry broke out at a stunned Kingspan with the game at last secured thanks to Bundee Aki’s 72nd minute interception try, the westerners had put to bed that awful stat – no wins in Belfast since November 1960 – and given new coach Andy Friend something special to build on.
It was dramatic, if helter-skelter, stuff from the off with Ulster losing Mattie Rea to a red card at the start of the second half for up-ending Cian Kelleher and being reduced to 13 men at that point as Marcell Coetzee had been binned for a high tackle at the end of the opening 40.
Even though Connacht failed to score when Ulster had two men missing, and looked to be scarcely believing that the game was there for them, they eventually ground the northerners down with Carty’s 66th minute penalty and then Aki’s glorious run-in sealing the deal.
Connacht’s scrum was immense in the game and their forwards created this result with the performances of Sean O’Brien and Ultan Dillane as well as their frontrow just too much for Ulster.
Even more significantly, Connacht pulled this off after losing three starting backs early in the game.
Ulster, with Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale back for the first time, were brave in adversity, but never really looked on the money though they did have two first half scores ruled out by referee Andrew Brace for having players in front of the ball.
It was less than an ideal start for Connacht with Kieran Marmion injured from the off with what appeared to be a rolled ankle.
Still, they had a try on five minutes when Matt Healy steamed through to send Tiernan O’Halloran over and though Best complained about possible obstruction, the score was allowed to stand. Carty added a magnificent touchline conversion but the sight of O’Halloran limping off meant Connacht had lost two of their starting side in five minutes.
It didn’t deter them and even though Stockdale appeared to have pulled off a perfect jackal on Carty, Marcell Coetzee’s high tackle earlier in the attack gave Connacht a penalty. Instead of going for the corner, they opted for the scrum. It worked too as several penalties, a free-kick and multiple re-sets later, Brace ran under the posts to award a penalty try.
Ulster needed a response and quickly and they got it on 23 minutes though Connacht presented them with the opportunity after Bundee Aki had ripped the ball clear from Coetzee only for the westerners to then lose possession.
With nothing on from the turnover, Billy Burns launched a speculative cross-kick in Stockdale’s general direction and though Caolin Blade seemed to have it covered he lost the ball allowing the Ireland winger to pounce. Cooney missed the difficult two points, and then Ulster had those two possible scores ruled out.
The half ended as it had started for the hosts – though the loss of Farrell to injury didn’t look great for the westerners – when O’Brien stole a lineout near the Connacht line and Coetzee was yellow-carded for a high tackle.
The drama continued from the restart, as Rea then took Cian Kelleher. The Ulster flanker was shown red. Cooney then missed a long range penalty on 50 minutes just as Coetzee re-joined the action but nailed his next chance three minutes later.
Connacht got over their wobbles by winning a penalty at a scrum and Carty nailed his 66th minute chance.
With Ulster chasing the game, it fell to Aki to intercept Johnny McPhillips’ attempted pass to Stockdale and he raced in with eight minutes remaining. Carty missed the extras but Connacht were there, not caring that Nick Timoney’s 79th minute score and Cooney’s conversion rescued a losing bonus point.
Ulster’s Angus Kernohan is driven back by Cian Kelleher and Matt Healy of Connacht at Kingspan Stadium.