Connacht 18 Ulster 17
Connacht had a great start to their Interprovincial championship campaign last Saturday when they beat Ulster in a pulsating match at Ballyhaunis. Before the match Ballyhaunis RFC officially opened their magnificent new Clubhouse and grounds and the presence of the Triple Crown and Six Nations trophies helped build a great atmosphere for the large attendance.
Connacht had not beaten Ulster for over ten years but Coaches Seamus King and Eddie Walshe were quietly confident going into the match that the squad they had put together could achieve an historic victory, and so it proved.
The match itself was played in brilliant sunshine but a strong cross field wind made it awkward for the kickers and line out throwers.
Connacht asserted early pressure which unsettled Ulster and this resulted in an early breakthrough in the 10th minute when Dunmore flanker Ger Kelly went over for the game's first try following excellent work by the Connacht forwards. In the tricky conditions out half Ger O'Connor from Monivea missed the conversion but he made no mistake five minutes later when he converted Connacht's second try which was scored by Westport's Kevin Corcoran following a great interception and a sprint from his own 22 metre line to score under the Ulster posts.
This left the score at 12 – 0 to Connacht and they fully deserved the lead as they fronted up the heavier Ulster pack, especially at ruck time with Martin Lee, Eoin Rooney and Enda Murphy forcing numerous turnovers. The Connacht back line were well organised defensively, however persistent Ulster pressure in the later stages of the first half resulted in Ulster's main threat, out half John Semple, crossing over for a try with 35 minutes gone in the half. Semple also converted to leave the score at 12 – 10 to Connacht at half time.
The second half started much as the first had done with Connacht putting pressure on Ulster at all times and they were dually rewarded when Ger O'Connor slotted home a penalty from outside the 22 metre line on 47 minutes. Connacht were unlucky not to score further during this period with Dave Prior, Ger Divilly and captain Kevin Higgins all creating good opportunities.
The penalty set back seemed to galvanise Ulster who enjoyed their best period of the game for the next twenty minutes. Their earlier indecision in the backline was replaced with some excellent moves and they reduced the deficit to 15 – 10 with a Semple penalty on 55 minutes. Consistent rucking and mauling by their pack had the Connacht line under severe pressure and eventually Ulster prop Phil Moore drove over for a try which, when converted by out half Semple had Ulster in front for the first time in the game, 17 – 15 with 15 minutes left.
This was now the test of Connacht's resolve and team spirit and they came through. Willie Parker, Eoin Rooney, Alan Bane and sub Mike Ward took on Ulster up front while scrum half Mike Murphy and centres Paul Cody and Dave Prior started to probe the tiring Ulster backline. Connacht made a break from their own 22 through Kevin Corcoran in the 70th minute which resulted in a penalty against Ulster for killing the ball in a ruck on their own 22. Ger O'Connor withstood the pressure and slotted the ball home to leave Connacht leading by the minimum margin, 18 – 17, with 10 minutes left plus injury time.
And what a last ten minutes they were as Ulster tried everything and Connacht denied them with some tremendous defence. With one minute of normal time remaining Ulster thought they had scored the winning try but Munster referee Jude Quinn disallowed it for offside much to Connacht's relief. However Connacht had to endure a full six minutes of injury time during which Ulster had an opportunity from a penalty from the 10 metre line but the effort fell short.
The final whistle brought joyful scenes as the Connacht players and management and supporters celebrated a great win.
Connacht travel to play Leinster next Saturday in Navan at 12 noon in a top of the table clash as Leinster narrowly defeated Munster 10 – 9 last Saturday. A repeat of last Saturday's performance and some tightening up in the set pieces will see Connacht in with an excellent chance of being top of the table come Saturday night
Willie Parker gets ready to defend the lineout