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Michael Bradley’s final match in charge of Connacht ended in disappointment as Ulster outscored their provincial rivals by 29 points in the second half of Friday’s derby clash at Ravenhill.
A well-worked try from prop Ronan Loughney off a set lineout move gave Connacht some hope as they closed the gap to 12-10 for half-time.
But Ulster dominated the second half, and tries from replacement hooker Andi Kyriacou, centre Ian Whitten, lock Dan Tuohy and full-back Jamie Smith saw the home side coast to their second successive bonus point win.
For a while, his interprovincial derby looked poised to be a Heineken Cup qualification play-off as the sides battled it out for Ireland’s third automatic place in the European tournament.
However, Ulster’s impressive dismissal of Edinburgh last time out ended Connacht’s brave fight through the league route and Leinster and Munster’s Heineken Cup semi-final losses last weekend closed the door on the westerners’ final hopes.
Although their overall effort could not be questioned, Connacht were admittedly not at their best for this trip north and Ulster were keen to prove that they deserved to finish above Michael Bradley’s men in the final league standings.
The only downside for Ulster was the suspected ankle injury sustained by hooker and captain Rory Best, early in the second half, which will be a concern for the Ireland management ahead of next month’s summer tour to New Zealand and Australia.
Connacht made four changes to the team that lost out to Toulon in last weekend’s Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final, bringing Brian Tuohy, Loughney, Bernie Upton and Mike McComish back into the side.
Out-half Humphreys, who starred for Ulster at Murrayfield, returned to the home side’s starting line-up, while injuries to Stephen Ferris and late withdrawal Chris Henry saw Thomas Anderson start in the back row.
Humphreys’ opposite number, Ian Keatley, opened the scoring with a well-struck fourth minute penalty as the Connacht forwards foraged well early on.
But the visitors encountered problems in the scrum, with youngster Jamie Hagan pressurised by Ireland international Tom Court, and referee Dudley Phillips, who stepped in for the stranded Romain Poite, had to show patience in sorting out the set piece problems.
When the game settled into some pattern, it was Ulster who looked the more dangerous. Humphreys missed a kickable penalty before big Scottish winger Simon Danielli threatened out wide.
Indeed, Danielli made the breakthrough on the 20-minute mark when he kicked ahead close to the left touchline and with Connacht failing to deal with the bobbling ball, he nudged it on again before getting in ahead of scrum half Frank Murphy for the touchdown.
The Scot’s eighth try of the league campaign went unconverted, but Humphreys redeemed himself when he gathered the ball, after Keatley’s attempted grubber had been blocked by Whitten, and stepped inside the covering Brian Tuohy for a second Ulster try.
This time he added the extras. There were few clearcut scoring chances during what was a low key first half, which burst back into life when Loughney got Connacht back in contention.
Keatley missed a long range penalty, with a difficult wind at his back, but from a second penalty he cracked a lovely touchfinder down the left, setting up a five-metre lineout.
Sean Cronin’s throw was worked down to Loughney who made use of some slack defending at the tail-end of the lineout to muscle his way over for the try, which Keatley converted for a 12-10 half-time scoreline.
Best’s withdrawal was a serious setback, but his replacement Kyriacou made an immediate impact. He followed on some strong running from Andrew Trimble and full-back Smith to cross for a try on the right-hand side, just a minute after being introduced.
Brian McLaughlin’s charges were beginning to get a grip on the game and Connacht looked beaten when an inviting pass from Humphreys sent the impressive Whitten charging through a gap in midfield and he had the pace to make it over from 40 metres out.
Humphreys converted the bonus point try make it 26-10 and with memories of last season’s 53-13 win in the corresponding fixture, the Ulster crowd were hungry for more scores.
Humphreys stretched the hosts’ lead to 19 points with a penalty from close range, and the Ulster management brought on the Leinster-bound Isaac Boss and Fijian winger Timoci Nagusa who has agreed to join Montpellier for next season.
Neither player could get on the scoresheet during a ragged final quarter, in which Connacht, with the likes of John Muldoon, McComish and George Naoupu battling until the end, threw caution to the wind.
The westerners attacked from deep in search of a consolation try but there was very little room for danger man Fionn Carr to work. With a degree of comfort, Ulster sealed off the space and enjoyed territorial dominance.
And the men in white signed off with two late tries, the first coming from a rare line break from replacement prop Bryan Young who did well to spot Tuohy in support and the big lock enjoyed his finish under the posts.
Replacement Niall O’Connor made it a seven-pointer and injuries took their toll on Connacht. Their tighthead Hagan had to hobble off in the dying minutes, and with the replaced Loughney unavailable to rejoin the fray, the referee called for uncontested scrums.
Ulster had the legs to manufacture a sixth and final try with Trimble sucking in the defenders and Smith backing himself to score on the left, with number 8 Robbie Diack in support.
Smith’s third try in as many league games was the final scoring act as Ulster brought the curtain down on a season of highs and lows.