The first round of inter-pros was slightly interrupted with the postponement of Leinster and Munster. Connacht hosted Ulster in the Sportsground in difficult conditions which showed us that Ulster haven't lost their momentum following a tough exit from the Champions Cup.
Ulster were evidently up for the game judging by their reaction to even the smallest wins throughout the game which is now more apparent with the lack of crowd noise. Jordi Murphy confirmed the Ulster intent in his player of the match interview after the game, admitting that there was a lot of chat surrounding this game, presumably because Ulster have had a lot of frustration in Galway in recent years.
Ulster started the brighter of the two teams and Ian Madigan kicked his side into the lead with two penalties before Connacht really got a handle on the game.
Connacht didn’t have much possession in the first ten minutes but owned the ball in the next ten, showing us what they were about. They handled the ball unbelievably well and definitely had the superior handling skills in such tough conditions. They mixed their delicate handling with good scrummaging power which eventually finished with Jack Carty converting his own try in the corner following another Ulster yellow card.
Ulster have been guilty of a number of yellow cards lately and have struggled while they’ve been down a man. The same happened on Sunday in Galway and Connacht took advantage in the game in the first half.
However, they allowed Ulster to stay within touching difference by not managing the restarts after their tries. A handling error led to a penalty in the lineout and Madigan kicked his third penalty which brought the two sides closer together going in 14-9 at half time.
The weather conditions didn’t help Connacht in the second half. They couldn’t kick out of their own half, while Ulster managed territory through Madigan, Mathewson and Lowry. Connacht were also dealt a few injury blows. Considering both sides had already rested a few of the bigger names going into the first round of inter-pros, the forced changes for Connacht didn’t help their strength moving into the final quarter of the game and they certainly looked like they lost an edge and their shape while Ulster were on the rise.
A nice line run by Greg Jones allowed him to free his hands on the other side of the tackle and he fed the rampaging run of Nick Timoney which will be well received by Ulster fans following the frustrating announcement of Marcel Coetzee’s departure.
Despite his absence in this fixture, Ulster were physically dominant in the forward exchanges. They may have missed a number of tackles in that sticky patch in the first half but on the balance of the game they put in big shots on the Connacht attack which stopped the Westerners' flow at various times.
Add in a malfunctioning lineout to the Connacht woes for the final quarter and it was no real surprise that their game dwindled, despite Tom Daly’s try keeping them in touch. The try was a result of a mixture of their willingness and ability to throw passes deep in the opposition 22 and then the finish came from brute physicality through Daly but it was nearly their last real attack in the game and Ulster controlled the rest.
A poach penalty from substitute Matty Rea allowed Madigan to add to his tally and he eventually finished up with 8/9 off the tee in very difficult conditions, some of those kicks were from distance too. Madigan is returning to his best following a string of matches and looks like he’s really enjoying his rugby at the moment. At 31, is his Irish dream still alive? He was hot on Sexton’s heels at one stage of his career before getting frustrated by playing second fiddle but it’s not too late for him to make a return to the squad.
Connacht lost a lineout deep in Ulster’s half to finish out the game, which is probably a summary of their second half. Frustrating finish for them to a game that they took control of in the first half, having been tipped by the pundits in studio before the game.
It’s a massive boost for Ulster after their disappointment in Europe and they are now out in front of both conferences having played the most matches. Ulster, Munster and Leinster are all unbeaten in the league but there will be some changes in the next few weeks with all Irish teams squaring off in a mini inter-pro series in the middle of the league.
Munster have to travel to Ulster, who will be returning home with more confidence and will be very difficult to beat up there. Both teams have nine wins this year. Munster came off the back of one of their biggest wins in recent years but their momentum was stalled following the postponement of the Leinster game. I’m sure Munster players would have been relishing the litmus test of hosting Leinster. They will now put their unbeaten streak on the line away in Ulster which is a daunting task in itself.
Life won’t get any easier for Connacht. They have to travel to well-rested and unbeaten Leinster. This is the time of the year where Connacht may lose sight of the top of the conference if the Welsh sides behind them can swap a couple of wins.
Connacht will need a few big results in the coming weeks to keep in touch. They’re well capable of it too with their ability to play with the ball in hand. Some luck is needed on the injury front to keep their squad strong, although they have enough in the tank to compete with the Welsh and Scottish teams in their conference.
With the rising levels of Covid cases following the festive period, we’ll be hoping that the next round of inter-pros goes ahead with less hiccups on Saturday night.