Munster challenge as Connacht look to avoid sixth successive reverse

Shayne Bolton of Connacht during the United Rugby Championship match between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Shayne Bolton of Connacht during the United Rugby Championship match between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Connacht will be hoping to avoid their sixth successive defeat when they host Munster at the Sportsground on New Year’s Day.

Despite scoring three tries and a bonus point, they came up just short against Ulster in the BKT United Rugby Championship on Friday night, but the tasks won’t get any easier in the game on Monday.

The Munster men have been hit by a spate of withdrawals and Graham Rowntree faces an anxious wait to hear from the Munster medics as he attempts to pick a team for the trip to Galway next week.

After a promising start, Connacht have fallen away and are clinging onto eight spot, but will be looking for a morale-boosting victory after their recent poor run.

Munster fell 9-3 to arch rivals Leinster in an attritional St Stephen’s night dogfight at Thomond Park on Tuesday and also lost forward trio Diarmuid Barron, Edwin Edogbo and Dave Kilcoyne as well as centre Alex Nankivell to injuries.

Rowntree is already without longer-term casualties in South African locks Jean Kleyn and RG Snyman while former captain Peter O’Mahony has not played since his first game back for Munster following Ireland’s World Cup campaign but is having a shoulder injury sustained on November 18 assessed on a week-by-week basis and could return to face Connacht.

Academy lock Edogbo, who turned 21 last week, appears to be facing a lengthy spell away from the action, though, the Cobh forward going down with an tendon injury midway through the second half “It’s an Achilles injury there. It doesn’t look good,” Rowntree said of a player who also sustained a similar injury at the start of the 2022-23 season.

“Dave Kilcoyne, shoulder. Diarmuid Barron got a foot injury, Alex Nankivell as well. It’s quite a lengthy list there.

“We are already thin on the deck. We are thin squad wise, availability wise. We will see what we can muster up on Thursday, see what the injury report presents itself because we have got another big game at the Sportsground. We drive on.”

Ulster exacted revenge on Connacht and ended 2023 on a high with a tight 20-19 victory over the Westerners in the festive inter-provincial derby at Kingspan Stadium.

In a blistering start, Andy Warwick and Nick Timoney touched down for Ulster either side of Bundee Aki’s score as the hosts led 14-7 at the break,

John Cooney kicked two penalties but Shamus Hurley-Langton and Shayne Bolton tries set up a grandstand finish.

However Ulster held on to make it back-to-back victories to end the year.

The win avenges Ulster’s defeat in Galway in November, when Dan McFarland’s side let a 17-point advantage slip as Connacht fought back to snatch victory.

Ulster made a superb start, showing quick and lively hands to stretch Connacht and they were rewarded when Warwick got on the end of Cooney’s pop pass to fall over the line within three minutes. Cooney added the conversion.

Connacht piled pressure on the hosts and came close but Tom Farrell was held up over the line. Play was brought back for a penalty and the visitors were rewarded when Ireland centre Aki crossed under pressure in the 10th minute.

The visitors thought they had touched down three minutes later when Bolton raced onto Jack Carty’s kick through but he lost a foot race with the ball and could only touch down on the line behind the posts.

The pendulum swung in Ulster’s favour in the 19th minute when, after a number of penalties in Connacht territory, Timoney crashed over. Cooney again landed the difficult conversion.

The wind and rain, blowing straight down the pitch into the faces of the Connacht players, intensified as the half progressed and the 20 minutes before the break were error-filled and forgettable, with the crowd even going from the famous Ravenhill roar to a subdued mumble.

The second half started as the first ended, although a clever break by Kieran Treadwell, on his 150th Ulster appearance, got the crowd back on their feet.

That led to a penalty, which Cooney sent between the posts to extend Ulster’s advantage.

Connacht, now with the wind in their favour, turned down the opportunity for a straightforward three points and Ulster pinched their line-out in the corner.

The visitors made their pressure count when Hurley-Langton beat attempted tackles by Robert Baloucoune and Will Addison on the wing to drive over in the corner. Carty’s conversion attempt drifted wide and Ulster led by five with 20 minutes to play.

Ulster came roaring back and Cooney put eight between the sides after Connacht infringed in front of their posts.

In a yo-yo period of play, Bolton capitalised on more soft defending, with Jacob Stockdale and Cooney the culprits, to slide over the line and JJ Hanrahan kicked the conversion to set up a tense final 10 minutes.

Connacht pressed for a late, decisive score but Ulster held on to move up to fourth in the URC table.

Ulster: Addison; Baloucoune, Hume, McCloskey, Stockdale; Flannery, Cooney; Warwick, Stewart, Moore; Treadwell, Henderson (capt ); Matty Rea, Sean Reffell, Timoney

Replacements: Andrew, Kitshoff, O’Toole, O’Connor, Sheridan, Doak, Postlethwaite, O’Brien.

Connacht: Hansen; Bolton, Farrell, Aki, Ralston; Carty, Blade; Buckley, McElroy, Bealham; D Murray, Thornbury; Prendergast, Hurley-Langton, O’Brien.

Replacements: Heffernan, Dooley, Aungier, Murray, Oliver, McDonald, Hanrahan, Jennings.

 

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