Connacht’s Bundee Aki is tackled by Marcus Rea and Nick Timoney of Ulster at the Sportsground, Galway. INPHO/JAMES CROMBIE

Ulster win after nail-biting finish

Ulster 22

Connacht 20

After their recent record, any win and in any fashion was welcomed by Ulster on Friday night as they provided Head Coach Dan McFarland with some Christmas cheer after a black December.

However they had to hang on by their fingernails as Connacht, 14 points down and seemingly out with eight minutes remaining, laid siege to the visitors’ 22 and were unlucky not to come away with at least a draw from this game.

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In the end, John Cooney’s decision to kick a penalty on the 72nd minute rather than kick to the corner in search of five or seven, proved decisive. McFarland magnanimously praised his scrum-half for taking the right option, admitting he felt at the time it was the wrong thing to do.

Typical Ulster they either blow hot or cold at the moment and when they were comfortable after the break following two Tom Stewart tries, it looked like all they had to do was hold their form against the Western province.

Not for the first time Connacht roused themselves late as their opponents looked like rabbits in headlights as Jarrad Butler and Adam Byrne both came off the bench to touch down and give the home crowd hope in their hearts for a grandstand finish.

Former Connacht boss McFarland acknowledged as much later when he declared: “That would be standard Connacht, wouldn’t it? How many times have teams come here and eked out a lead, but are hanging on desperately at the end? More often than not, they end up winning. At the time I didn’t want us to kick for goal to go to 22 points. I thought our maul was going well enough to get a try and then we could put it to bed for real. But you never know. Who made the call? The players, as they would normally. I tend to try and not interfere with that."

Rob Lyttle’s try was all Ulster had to show as they led 5-3 but Stewart double dotting down seemed to put them in pole position for the rest of the game with the chance of a bonus point as well if they could get over one more time.

However, inexplicably they were shunted onto the back foot and while the win will be welcome by their Head Coach, this week he will have sleepless nights at how easy it was to go from hero to zero among his ranks.

“We are still seeing parts of our game that genuinely have to increase. We earned ourselves five opportunities in Connacht's 22 in the first half, and we scored from one of them. The only thing that was letting us down there was our ball presentation, the speed and cleanness of our ruck ball. We made a lineout error as well – we just needed to up the accuracy and intensity in that area.

"Connacht were defending well in the second half, they managed to hold onto the ball for long periods in difficult conditions, but we managed to eke out penalties and put pressure on their kicking game, even when they had the wind. That allowed us opportunities to get our maul going."

Connacht boss Andy Frend had a different viewpoint on proceedings. “You can’t play 75 minutes of footy like that and expect to get a win. I actually felt with 13 minutes when we were 11 points down that we could score two tries here and win this.They got that kick to make it 14, we can still score two, but again what had happened in the previous 72 minutes, we just kept coughing up ball. It was just a frustrating game,” he conceded.