Jackson puts Connacht to the sword
Connacht 7 Ulster 18
Paddy Jackson plundered 13 second-half points to guide Ulster to their first win of the new RaboDirect PRO12 campaign, defeating provincial rivals Connacht 18-7 at a windswept Sportsground.
Jackson put a disappointing first 40 minutes behind him as he converted his own 57th-minute try and kicked two penalties to decide this first Irish interprovincial derby of the season.
The sides scored a try apiece in the opening quarter hour, Ulster winger Michael Allen replying to a try from Dan Parks whose conversion separated them at the break – 7-5.
But Connacht were held scoreless for the remainder, with man-of-the-match Iain Henderson, who saw action in the second row and back row, and replacement Paul Marshall helping Mark Anscombe’s men find an extra gear in their territorially dominant third quarter.
New Zealanders Craig Clarke and Jake Heenan made their first competitive starts for the hosts, who won here against Zebre in the first round.
Connacht kept the ball in hand early on but suffered a couple of turnovers, with Ulster inviting Ireland internationals Henderson and Tom Court – two of the three changes in the pack – to test the home defence.
The westerners answered back with a thundering tackle by captain Michael Swift on Court near halfway, and John Muldoon followed up with a between-the-legs pass to set Matt Healy loose on the left wing.
There was precious little space in a frenetically-paced first quarter, but a brief chink of light saw Willie Faloon canter away from a ruck before Jared Payne brought the flanker down.
Connacht kept up the pressure in the 22 and after good carries from Robbie Henshaw and Fionn Carr, Parks stepped off his right and evaded the grasp of front rowers Rob Herring and Declan Fitzpatrick on the way to the line.
Parks turned it into a seven-pointer as he became the first player to score more than 1,500 league points.
Wind-backed Ulster hit back within three minutes though, as Luke Marshall bludgeoned up close to the whitewash and Payne’s soft hands put Allen in at the left corner.
Jackson pulled his conversion attempt across the posts and the youngster looked slightly unsettled as he kicked out on the full.
From the resulting lineout, Connacht probed and won a penalty outside the 22 which Parks narrowly missed to the right.
Henderson barrelled forward to get Ulster back on track and they teed up a penalty in a similar range to Park’s.
However, Jackson, who only had a 56% kicking success rate from the past two rounds, slid his effort wide.
The stinging early pace took its toll as further mistakes crept into the game approaching half-time, with a late knock-on in contact from Henderson ruining a promising attack for the Ulstermen.
Ulster resumed with a changed back-line which included Paul Marshall and Craig Gilroy, back from a groin injury for his seasonal debut, and they almost struck for an early try – Payne slithered through only for Kieran Marmion and Gavin Duffy to hold him up past the line.
Connacht needed even more bodies on the line to prevent an Ulster maul from getting over in the left corner, with a subsequent lineout steal ending a period of sustained pressure from the visitors.
But Connacht’s penalty count spiralled towards double figures – Eoin Griffin the guilty party this time at a ruck – and Jackson mopped up with the three points for a 55th minute lead.
The 21-year-old then started and finished his province’s second try, sending a work-hungry Luke Marshall bursting away over halfway. Henshaw got back to bring him down but a quick recycle allowed Payne to put Jackson over to the right of the posts.
With his confidence restored, Jackson added the extras and was narrowly wide with a monster penalty effort entering the final quarter.
Connacht’s indiscipline at the breakdown soon gave Jackson a kickable penalty from closer in and he found the target to leave the hosts 11 points adrift with 16 minutes remaining.
It was enough to ensure last season’s beaten finalists got back to winning ways, with Connacht’s frustrating night summed up by their failure to earn a losing bonus point at the death via an effective lineout maul and series of scrums.