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Connacht failed to convert pressure into points at Ravenhill on Friday as Ulster snapped back at them with two second half tries to turn this game in their favour.
Connacht fly-half Andy Dunne had a forgettable night, missing three kickable penalties and a drop goal.
Hampered by those misses, the visitors, who were searching for their first win in Belfast since 1960, ultimately paid the price as tries from Tom Court and Matt McCullough handed the spoils to Ulster.
This is a very valuable win in terms of Ulster securing Heineken Cup qualification for next season as they now sit eight points ahead of Connacht, in the lower reaches of the table, and with a game in hand.
Driving rain and hailstones before kick-off certainly added to the sense of trench warfare as the league’s bottom two sides slugged it out. It was far from pretty and the score-line was still 3-3 as the game entered the final quarter.
Ulster welcomed Italian lock Carlo Del Fava back from a knee injury, while experienced prop Justin Fitzpatrick also started in the hosts’ scrum.
Connacht opted for the same team that lost 16-5 to Munster last time out and they looked the livelier during a turgid first half, not helped by the greasy ball.
Ulster threatened to open things up with Andrew Trimble shooting down the left touchline but the Irish international was quickly swallowed up and the hosts were soon down to 14 men.
Referee Peter Fitzgibbon, who was drafted in before kick-off to take over from the injured Alan Lewis, reached for his yellow card in the eighth-minute after Ulster number 8 Stephen Ferris made a wild and dangerous lunge into a midfield ruck.
Dunne flicked a close range drop goal attempt to the right and wide of the posts but Connacht were able to open their account in the 15th-minute as some indiscipline began to cost Ulster.
Prop Court was penalised for a scrum infringement and then after a Gavin Duffy kick to touch and an Andrew Farley lineout take, home flanker Kieron Dawson was whistled up for not rolling away in the tackle, allowing Dunne to kick Connacht 3-0 ahead.
However, Connacht infringed off the restart as their former England prop Robbie Morris was sin-binned for dangerous use of the knee at a ruck. The westerners were left off the hook though when Ulster’s Niall O’Connor pulled his penalty attempt away to the left.
With the rain now easing, the bumper crowd were hoping for some expansive play but Ulster’s attack never got going and Connacht looked the more likely to create a try-scoring chance.
The Ulster back three increased their influence with Bryn Cunningham brilliantly collecting a Dunne up and under and Mark Bartholomeusz also won a bout of aerial ping pong.
Yet the first real surge in open play came from Connacht. On 32 minutes, centre Keith Matthews made an angled run show up some cracks in the Ulster defence. Forwards David Gannon, Johnny O’Connor and John Muldoon all got on the ball to continue the move, close to halfway, but Matthews the instigator then knocked on.
For all their grunt and graft, Connacht lost their lead before half-time when Niall O’Connor smacked a penalty kick over from just inside the ten-metre line for 3-3 after Johnny O’Connor had been penalised.
But, despite an injury-time penalty miss from Dunne, there were still some late moments of encouragement for Connacht to take into the break – Dunne’s own half-break sent Duffy hurtling down the right wing and Matthews also imposed himself by putting in a thunderous hit on Paddy Wallace.
Connacht could have moved 9-3 ahead inside the first five minutes of the second half. Crucially, they never did as Dunne drove two penalty attempts – after 42 and 45 minutes – to the right of the posts.
The second kick was Dunne’s last action as Connemara’s Kiwi fly-half Troy Nathan was brought on to win his second Connacht cap.
The home side were under the cosh for a good few minutes as the Connacht pack thrived on a series of pick and goes and showed some admirable continuity.
Duffy did magnificently to soar above his opposite number Cunningham and take a high ball on the hosts’ 22 but although he was able to offload to the supporting O’Connor, Ulster retreated quickly to snuff out the danger.
Coming up to the hour mark, two charge downs put some much-needed fire in Ulster’s belly. Nathan took far too long to clear his lines as Ulster captain Rory Best got in to block him and two phases later, Danny Riordan watched his kick be charged down by Isaac Boss as he tried to clear from his try line.
A purple patch ensued for Ulster and pressure in the forwards resulted in a 62nd-minute try for them when Court squirmed over off a close range ruck with television match official Eanna O’Dowd confirming the grounding.
Wallace, who slotted in at number 10 after O’Connor’s departure, added the conversion for a sudden 10-3 lead.
Matt Williams’ men, hungry for a win after successive defeats to Munster and the Ospreys, brought big ball carriers Rob Dewey and Neil Best into the fray and Boss soon won a penalty which Wallace dispatched through the posts.
After the Connacht forwards upped the tempo and got back into the hosts’ 22, Nathan pegged it back to 13-6 with a 71st-minute penalty.
Cunningham missed with a drop goal attempt, adding to the tension, but Ulster managed to end Connacht’s brave fight in the 78th-minute when flanker Matt McCullough burst over for an unconverted score – although the match officials failed to spot a knock on by Neil Best in the lead-up to the try.