Ulster commenced their URC campaign with a convincing bonus-point, 36-10 win over Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium tonight.
On paper, an interprovincial matchup in week one was a prospect to wet the lips. However, it was a cagey, scoreless first quarter of the match, illuminated by some stunningly executed, territory kicks by Ulster’s returning Jacob Stockdale.
Yet, it was another welcome returner who opened the scoring as Ulster’s centres combined, Stuart McCloskey’s surge and clever flick pass which set Luke Marshall free to run in under the posts.
Connacht’s defence were under siege and had they made it to half time at just 7-0, it could have been a big boost.
Hopes of that were quelled though when hooker Tom Stewart powered over from close range, Nathan Doak slotted the extras, and it was 14-0.
The sides traded penalties for 17-3. Then Doak scampered over from close-range. The scrumhalf converted his own try and Ulster’s dominance was now reflected in the score line.
Visiting flanker Paul Doyle was sinbinned as Connacht were forced into a series of cynical play, giving away repeated penalties. Immediately, the man-advantage told as McCloskey played in full-back Stewart Moore who finished nicely in the corner.
With ten minutes to play and debutants aplenty, two of Connacht’s subs combined as replacement scrumhalf Caolin Blade linked with David Hawkshaw on a rapid counterattack. Hawkshaw converted to bring Connacht up to double digits.
Yet it was the home side who rounded off the scoring spree as replacement Callum Reid buried over after good, concerted pressure by Ulster’s forwards, well conducted by Doak.
So, 36-10 at full time and for Ulster, an ideal start to this URC campaign.
Ulster advanced to the URC semi-finals with a stunning 36-17, James Hume inspired, annihilation of Munster at the Kingspan Stadium.
First half tries from John Cooney and a Stewart Moore brace along with Jean Kleyn’s score saw the hosts 19-7 up at the break. Nick Timoney, Hume and a Keith Earls double in the second half concluded an absorbing match won by Dan McFarland’s side.
The hosts began like a team keen to avenge their only home league defeat, inflicted by the visitors. They won a penalty deep in Munster territory and Hume caught the visitors sleeping when he took a quick tap and played in John Cooney who scored and converted for 7-0.
Munster replied when Jean Kleyn got over and after the game’s first quarter, it was level. Robert Baloucoune then made a try-saving tackle on Joey Carbery and two minutes later, Ulster had regained the advantage. Stewart Moore, in at full back, glided through, exchanged passes with Ethan Mcilroy and scored under the posts.
After concerted pressure from the hosts, backed by a boisterous Belfast crowd, Moore swiftly scored again, dotting down in the corner after Hume’s accurate pass reached him. That put Ulster 19-7 ahead at half time.
Two minutes after the interval, Hume punctured yet another hole in the Munster defence, his nifty break and pass allowing Nick Timoney to hare in. Cooney converted and it was 26-7.
Munster bit back applying pressure and Cooney was relieved that Gavin Coombes’ try was disallowed by the TMO given it was his botched clearance kick which was charged down. After a knock on then, Keith Earls did extremely well to finish tightly from a narrow angle.
Cooney landed a penalty to make the game beyond two tries before Hume, set up by Billy Burns, got over the line after a sprawling finish which his performance warranted. Earls scored again, ten minutes from time, but by then McFarland’s team had done enough, 36-17 ahead.
For Ulster, the semi-finals await. Munster will rue just where this poor a performance came from.