Connacht win does Ulster big favour in race for rugby Pro14 title
THE race for top spot in Conference A of the PRO14 took a dramatic and totally unexpected twist on Saturday with Connacht's shock win over Leinster at the RDS which followed Ulster's 15-10 victory over Munster at Kingspan Stadium.
The western province's 35-24 success was their first win in Dublin since 2002 and the result did Ulster a big favour with two crucial meetings with Leinster to come.
The mini-series starts with Friday night's clash in the capital with Leo Cullen's side now 10 points behind the northerners but having played two games fewer.
However, if there's a solitary point separating Ulster and Leinster in the final standings of the regulation season, then Dan McFarland's side might yet rue not claiming a maximum five from the Munster game.
Leinster managed to do what Ulster couldn't as Ed Byrne secured a losing bonus point with a last-minute touchdown which could yet be important in the final run-in despite Connacht ending their hosts' 26-game unbeaten domestic run.
Beforehand, Ulster had looked well on course to secure the extra point, having scored two tries in the first 17 minutes against what a Munster side playing without their top-line internationals.
However, the visitors refused to lie down, and indeed scored the only points of the second-half with the clock turned red as Dave Sweetnam went over from close-range for a converted try.
Despite losing their unbeaten record, Munster's place in the decider looks pretty much guaranteed while Ulster and Leinster will battle it out for top spot in Conference A with only the winners of the two pools progressing.
Ulster head coach McFarland had mixed emotions after the game, as his team failed to build on that promising start.
"I'm really pleased that we won; we've beaten a team that hadn't lost a game this season," he said.
"The thing that Munster have demonstrated this year is that they are extremely dogged.
"They showed a lot of grit in the eight previous rounds so we knew exactly what we were up against."
Ulster took just seven minutes to open their account, Matt Faddes going over in the corner from a Jacob Stockdale pass.
Ten minutes later, it was 12-3 after Billy Burns' delightful crossfield kick was met by rookie winger Ethan McIlroy who took the ball without breaking his stride to touch down.
John Cooney made it 15-3 at the break, with Munster's sole points coming from a Ben Healy penalty.
But an error strewn second-half took the gloss off what had occurred in the opening 40 minutes as Ulster were unable to add to their tally.
"It never really looked like we would lose the game but we couldn't get away from them and we didn't turn possession into points," McFarland added.
"The reason was that we made too many errors. Some of them were just unnecessary but they are difficult to play against."
McFarland paid tribute to the battling qualities Munster displayed after the break as Ulster failed to score even when they had an extra man for 10 minutes after Billy Holland was binned on the hour mark.
"The attitude Munster showed out there was really impressive; they've come up here after Christmas time which as we know is really difficult," said the Englishman.
"They showed real grit and fight and they made it really messy for us.
"Having said that, we had a lot of opportunities to score points but we were inaccurate especially in the third quarter of the game when we needed to kick on.
"But there was a lot of effort from our guys and I am very happy with the win."