Ulster book place in Guinness PRO14 semi-finals with win over Connacht in Belfast

Ulster backrow forward Nicky Timoney goes over for a try against Connacht
Ulster backrow forward Nicky Timoney goes over for a try against Connacht
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Ulster secured their place in the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals with a hard fought and deserved win over Connacht at Kingspan Stadium.

On the evening when Rory Best was playing his last home game in Belfast, Ulster lifted themselves when under the cosh for long spells in the second half to secure a semi-final date at Scotstoun against Glasgow on Friday, May 17.

Connacht played their part in an thrilling second half coming twice to within a point before a late try took Ulster clear and on their way to Scotland.

Ulster put their authority on the game early, retaining possession strongly, moving through the phases and looking to get width as well.

Eventually Connacht went off their feet and scrumhalf John Cooney put the home side 3-0 ahead with the resulting penalty.

Connacht had opportunity to get back into things but Jack Carty failed to put a penalty to touch and then backrow Calby Fainga'a knocking on from a promising looking attack, Ulster pressed their case again.

Ulster went through several phases before a Marcell Coetzee offload was taken on by Kieran Treadwell, he timed his pass perfectly to blindside loose Nick Timoney and he had work still to do but made the ground, stepped inside Connacht winger Matt Healy and over for the game's opening try in the corner, Cooney missing the conversion.

Connacht enjoyed a purple patch, barging their way up the pitch. Stephen Fitzgerald made a flying break down the right flank, Rob Lyttle making a tackle equal to it to stop him. The visitors saw their chance, but the Ulster defence was on top of it and as the green shirts inched closer and closer to the line it looked as if it was just a matter of time.

Carty's lovely floating pass to Healy saw the Connacht winger glide past a couple of Ulster defenders far too easily, but the home

But Ulster pushed them back and then a thunderous tackle by Ross Kane on Dave Heffernan saw Jordi Murphy in to make the turnover.

Cooney head off for an HIA, replaced by Dave Shanahan, Connacht had one last burst, repelled and Carty kicked a penlaty to pen their account after 29 minutes.

The home Province finished the half on top, although two attacking lineouts were turned over.

Connacht centre Bundee Aki's no arms tackle on Billy Burns provided the chance for Cooney - back after passing the HIA - sent Ulster in 11-3 at the break.


Connacht had the first scoring opportunity of the second half, but Carty pushed his 47th minute penalty wide.

The home crowd raised their voices as first Luke Marshall gave way for centre Darren Cave to come on for his final home appearance before retiring at the end of the season; Rory Best turned ball over at a ruck and then a John Cooney break had Ulster back deep in the Connacht half.

But with Ulster on the front foot, and in control, a loose pass from Burns was intercepted by Fainga'a, he kept his footing and popped overhead to Aki, Robert Baloucoune could not make his tackle and there was nobody stopping the Irish centre for getting his try. Carty converted and Connacht were only a point behind after 55 minutes.

The hosts returned to where they had been previously been before the previous score and a Connacht offside saw Cooney make it 14-10 on 62 minutes.

Connacht were not for lying down. They kept working and prodding at Ulster and finally, an offside from Ulster, saw them force a penalty and Carty made no mistake to leave a point between the sides again going into the final 10 minutes.

There was a standing ovation for Best when he was replaced by Rob Herring.

Luke Marshall's - back on for the injured Cave - lovely probing grubber kick had Connacht in all sorts of trouble, but the ball did not bounce kindly for Michael Lowry and the visitors survived the scare.

Ulster bombarded the Connacht line, phase after phase after phase, and eventually two minutes later it was the impressive Marcell Coetzee who was to get over for the try.

Burns - with Cooney off - took over the kicking duties, landed the conversion from wide on the right and the lead was crucially 21-13.