Ulster edged out by Connacht in dramatic end to Pro14 Rainbow Cup opener
Pro14 Rainbow Cup: Ulster 24 Connacht 26
ULSTER made a disappointing start to their Rainbow Cup campaign when they went down 26-24 to Connacht in an exciting clash at Kingspan Stadium on Friday night.
There was high drama in the closing stages after replacement Dave Shanahan's late try seemed to have won it for Dan McFarland's side who had then edged ahead 24-21.
But Peter Sullivan scored with the clock deep in red for the match-winning score which was only awarded after the referee had watched several video replays to determine whether the ball had been in the playing area when it was touched down.
Ulster made a bright start but it was Connacht who opened the scoring in the eighth minute after their first incursion into the home 22.
It started when Ulster conceded the first penalty of the match and after Jack Carty had found touch, backrow forward Paul Boyle crossed after a couple of impressive carries from his forwards and Carty added the extras.
That score gave the visitors a shot in the arm and, after another fine kick into touch by Carty, it took a good piece of play from Nick Timoney to force a turnover and the danger was averted.
Ulster then turned down a kickable penalty from under the posts in the 15th minute as Billy Burns instead found touch in an attempt to set up a trademark lineout maul but Connacht defended well to force a knock on from centre Stewart Moore.
The hosts were looking a little off colour at this stage and they conceded another penalty and Carty, who was in fine fettle at fly-half, found touch inside the attacking 22.
But from the lineout and after a superb break by Boyle, Caolan Blade was penalised for a double movement in the act of stretching for the line as Ulster heaved a sigh of relief.
In the 23rd minute, once again, Ulster turned down three points in favour of a possible seven when they kicked for touch following a penalty for not rolling away.
This time the ploy paid off as Jacob Stockdale scored his team's opening try of the night after good work by Sean Reidy and James Hume in the build-up although John Cooney missed the touchline conversion.
Ulster almost added a second try shortly after the restart following a great break by Timoney who lost possession in a tackle by Ben O'Donnell.
But McFarland's men didn't have long to wait to score as the lead changed hands on the half-hour mark.
Hooker Rob Herring rumbled over after a lineout maul following Burns' penalty into touch and Cooney nailed the conversion impressively to make it 12-7 at half-time.
Five minutes after the break, Ulster got their third try when, after a superb break by Hume, Burns darted over after a great pass from Cooney who missed the conversion.
But Connacht reduced the gap to three points when Blade went over in the 51st minute for Tom Daly to add the extra points when the visitors were down a man down, Carty having been binned for a deliberate knock on in the build-up to the Ulster try.
The westerners enjoyed a spell of dominance after that boost and they regained the lead in the 64th minute when second row Blade was credited with his second try of the game after referee Andrew Brace had consulted the TMO and Daly converted to make it 21-17.
Rob Baloucoune had a great chance to put Ulster ahead again in the 71st minute but the winger dropped the ball in contact when he really should have passed to Mike Lowry who was lurking expectantly on his shoulder.
Lowry, who had come on for Stockdale, then brilliantly set up Shanahan a minute later for the bonus point try and Lowry added the extras to make it 24-21 to the home side.
But the drama wasn't over as Sullivan scored with the last play of the game as Connacht repeated their 2018 win over Ulster in Belfast.