LIGHTENING failed to strike twice for Connacht, whose attempt to win back-to-back victories in Belfast fell short after a tough and tense Pro 14 quarter-final battle on Saturday.
Having defeated the Ulster men 22-15 away in the league fixture back in October – a first triumph up North in 58 years – and having won the return fixture 21-12 at the Sportsground in December, the odds were stacked against the Westerners making it a record three wins on the trot against Dan McFarland’s resurgent charges.
Given all the off-field shenanigans that shrouded the club last year, Ulster were desperate for a win to salvage the season after losing to Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final in March.
Exiting both competitions at the quarter-final stage to Irish rivals would have hurt, but losing at home again to Connacht would have been unconscionable.
That gave Ulster a bit of an edge. So too the fact that hooker and fans’ favourite Rory Best, and Darren Cave, were making their final appearance at Kingspan Stadium, having accumulated close to 450 caps for the province between them over two stellar careers.
Connacht were in bonus territory having already achieved qualification for next year’s Champions Cup, and yet it was the visitors who looked to be feeling the pressure with handling errors and jitters a feature of their play early-on.
There was a massive travelling support in attendance, with busloads of Connacht fans making the lengthy trip North, but the close-on 1,000 supporters infiltrating the West Terrace hadn’t much to cheer about in the opening exchanges as Ulster took a stranglehold on proceedings.
In fairness, Andy Friend’s men were dogged despite not enjoying the lions’ share of possession and their stubbornness meant they were right in the hunt in the final quarter.
Trailing by the minimum, 13-14, the momentum was with Connacht who looked poised to strike for another famous and unlikely victory but Ulster said ‘no’.
Jack Carty’s third converted penalty of the day in the 66th minute proved a timely wake-up call for the home team who went on to dominate the remaining exchanges.
For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.
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