|Ulster (14) 36|
|Tries: Marshall, Stewart, Doak, Moore, Reid Cons: Doak 4 Pens: Doak|
|Connacht (3) 10|
|Tries: Blade Cons: Hawkshaw Pens: Fitzgerald|
Ulster scored five tries as they secured a convincing 36-10 bonus-point win over Connacht in their opening United Rugby Championship match of the season at Kingspan Stadium.
Luke Marshall, Tom Stewart on his first senior start, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore and Callum Reid were the try-scorers for the home side.
Doak kicked 11 points to take his personal points tally to 16.
Caolin Blade’s late try was scant consolation for a beleaguered Connacht.
Prior to kick-off, the 10th anniversary of the death of former Ulster centre Nevin Spence was marked by a video shown on the big screen and a guard of honour for the entrance of the teams provided by young members of his former club Ballynahinch.
Both sides wore black armbands and a minute’s silence in memory of Queen Elizabeth II was impeccably observed by the respectful crowd.
Much of the first half was disjointed, marked by errors and penalties and while Ulster dominated territory and possession, they lacked composure and struggled to get across the gain-line at key times as they tried to move the ball quickly and combat the line speed of Connacht.
Dan McFarland’s men were eventually rewarded for their superiority after 27 minutes when Billy Burns kicked to the corner, Alan O’Connor won the line-out and after a superb driving rolling maul, Doak fed the ball to Stuart McCloskey.
The Ulster centre charged at two defenders and produced an outrageous one-handed offload to Marshall, extending his right arm over them before deftly passing to his unmarked midfield partner, who had the simple task of dotting down behind the posts.
Doak split the posts with the conversion to extend the hosts’ advantage.
Three minutes before the break the home side crossed again to give the scoreline a more accurate reflection of their first-half dominance.
Hooker Stewart picked up the ball off the back of a maul and showed a fine burst of speed to power over the line unopposed, Doak again adding the extras.
The visitors reduced their deficit with the final action of the half through fly-half Conor Fitzgerald’s penalty.
Doak restored the northern province’s 14-point lead with his first penalty of the game soon after the restart and then dived over for his side’s third try in the 51st minute.
The build-up followed a familiar pattern as Ulster won their line-out and executed another rolling maul, before Stewart broke and tried to barge over, but was held up just short.
Doak quickly gathered the ball and darted over to touch down from half a metre out before converting his own try.
Connacht responded, putting together some attacking phases of their own, but Ulster’s defence held firm, one turnover on their own line being celebrated with particular gusto.
Try number four, and with it the bonus point, came 15 minutes from time, soon after Connacht number eight Paul Boyle had been sent to the sin-bin as punishment for the western province’s consistent ill-discipline in their own 22.
Ulster took a tap penalty, Marshall made the initial thrust and the ball eventually made its way to Moore on the wing, the number 15 finishing clinically by diving over in the corner.
Connacht looked to be down and out but replied with a score of their own as they took advantage of a rare Ulster defensive lapse after turning over the ball.
Three replacements combined for the try, Oran McNulty breaking down the wing from his own half, David Hawkshaw providing the support and collecting his pass and he supplied Blade, who cantered across the line.
Hawkshaw contributed the additional two points, his first for his new club.
Ulster fought back almost immediately, Reid barging over from close range after the forwards again executed their most effective weapon of the evening, the rolling maul. Doak added the two points.
One year after injury ended his 2021-22 season, Jacob Stockdale provided Ulster fans with an ample reminder of his talents, showing bursts of his trademark power and speed and booting a massive kick from inside his own 22 into the Connacht 22 during the first half.
Ulster: Moore; Baloucoune, Marshall, McCloskey, Stockdale; Burns, Doak; O’Sullivan, Stewart, Moore; O’Connor (capt), Matty Rea, Marcus Rea, McCann.
Replacements: Andrew, Toomaga-Allen, Murphy, Curtis, Reid, Izuchukwu, Shanahan, Sexton.
Connacht: O’Halloran; Ralston, Farrell, Daly, Porch; Fitzgerald, Marmion; Dooley, Heffernan, Aungier; Thornbury (capt), Fifita; Murphy, Oliver, Boyle.
Replacements: Tierney-Martin, Buckley, Illo, Murray, Hurley-Langton, Blade, Hawkshaw, McNulty.