By Lex Luddy
Connacht have gone to the top of the United Rugby Championship table after their round three encounter with derby rivals Ulsters. This matches the team’s best start to a league campaign since 2015.
The game itself was a close match-up as both teams still await their international stars returning from World Cup duties. Connacht also had to make adjustments as new number 10 JJ Hanrahan pulled out of the match midweek with a knee injury. In his place, Irish international Jack Carty returned to the side.
It was a very close first half with both teams playing running rugby, relying on the defences of the other to hold strong. By the 33rd minute, both teams had only managed 3 points each through penalty conversions.
However it was at this point, 7 minutes before half time, when Ulster speedster Aaron Sexton made a clean break on the wing, setting up Ulster’s number 10, Jake Flannery for 5 points under the posts.
Despite a misfiring lineout, Ulster went into the break with a 13-3 lead over the men from the west coast.
The second half:
Ulster got off to a flying start in the second half, with scrum-half David Shanahan scoring to bring the score to 20-3 in favour of the northern visitors.
Following this score, Connacht seemed to wake up, banging on the door of Ulster’s defense in the 22 for several minutes. This was until Cathal Forde, one of the highlights of the team during the opening rounds, dived over to bring the game back within a 10-point deficit.
Shortly after Cathal Forde’s score, centre partner Tom Farrel, crashed over in the 53rd minute to cut the arrears down to only 3 points.
Carty had an opportunity to level things up with a penalty shortly after but missed the kick. As the game entered the final eight minutes Connacht were awarded a penalty that put them in position with a throw-in to the lineout five metres out from Ulster’s line. From here the team pounded away at the line for over two minutes until an advantage call from the referee spurred Carty into action. With a short kick pass, and a lovely connection with Dermot Killgallen Connacht finally took the lead 22-20.
Carty missed that try’s conversion and the team was unable to get a fourth bonus point try, but despite that Connacht still move to the top of the league standings on 13 league points. Munster follow in second place with 12 points, while Leinster and Ulster sit slightly lower in sixth and seventh spot and 10 league points each.
Connacht’s next three games are a tough trio on the road against an improving Edinburgh in Scotland, an underperforming but physical Hollywoodbets Sharks in Durban, and the third-place team in the league, the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria.