Ulster beat Connacht to book Pro14 semi-final spot
|Pro14 quarter-final: Ulster 21-13 Connacht|
|Ulster (11) 21|
|Try: Timoney, Coetzee Con: Burns Pens: Cooney 3|
|Connacht (3) 13|
|Try: Aki Con: Carty Pen: Carty 2|
Ulster swept into the Pro14 semi-finals with thrilling 21-13 victory over Connacht in Belfast.
Rory Best and Darren Cave helped extend their club careers by at least one more game as Ulster continue their hunt for their first silverware in 13 years.
Marcell Coetzee’s late try sealed a dramatic win after Nick Timoney’s first-half score had put them ahead.
Bundee Aki crossed as Connacht contributed to an entertaining derby before Coetzee sealed Ulster’s win.
Dan McFarland will now go up against former club Glasgow Warriors in their semi-final at Scotstoun on 17 May.
Coetzee seals it
Ulster dominated territory and possession but they needed a trademark score by Coetzee at the death to make sure of the result.
The South Africa flanker capped a talismanic performance with a muscular finish in the 78th minute after Jack Carty’s second penalty brought Connacht back to within a single point.
Best and John Cooney were watching from the sidelines and the tension was palpable as Billy Burns restarted the game but Iain Henderson came up with a stunning turnover penalty to set up the final drive.
Cooney’s replacement David Shanahan urged his pack into the Connacht 22 before Coetzee bounced through two tackles and stretched to score a deserved try.
Burns kept his cool to land a tough conversion that sparked a wave of relief and elation in the stands.
Retiring duo play their part
Best and Cave were celebrated before and after the game by the Ulster faithful but the most fitting tribute came from their team-mates on the field.
Cave was restricted to a brief second-half cameo as he won his 228th Ulster cap to move within one appearance of Andrew Trimble’s record.
Best, who recovered from an ankle knock to lead his team out onto the Belfast turf for a final time, was under pressure at the line-out but produced a superb turnover in the 50th minute to release the pressure as Connacht looked for a way back into the match.
On an emotional occasion for Ulster’s longest-serving players, experienced lieutenants such as Henderson, Coetzee and Luke Marshall stood tall in a fraught contest.
Marshall, who was briefly replaced by Cave, was everywhere in an all-action display that showcased how badly he was missed for much of the season through injury.
Knock-out rugby returns to Kingspan
This was Ulster’s first knock-out match in Belfast since their 2014 Champions Cup quarter-final defeat by Saracens but the home side were determined not to come out on the losing side this time.
Timoney’s try in the 15th minute was a reward for Ulster’s ambitious, high-tempo approach.
Cooney slotted an early penalty as Ulster owned the ball for the opening five minutes and they continued to stretch the Connacht defence with a speed of thought and foot that their opponents struggled to match.
A pair of offloads by Coetzee and Kieran Treadwell created a corridor of space for Timoney on the left wing and the former Sevens international sprinted clear for a wonderful score.
Carty eventually got Connacht on the scoreboard after his brilliant skip pass caught Robert Baloucoune out of position and the visiting fly-half was presented with a straightforward penalty.
But Cooney cancelled that after Aki was judged to have illegally tackled Burns as Ulster to led 11-3 at the break.
Connacht prove their point
Connacht head coach Andy Friend has transformed the team that laboured to a sixth-place conference finish last season and the visitors showed their mettle even as Ulster looked to take the game away from them.
Cooney broke from the back of a line-out maul to bring Ulster within metres of the Connacht line but Carty snaffled an intercept to clear the danger.
The home side failed to heed their lesson when they next attacked and Colby Fainga’a turned the momentum when he grabbed an attempted Burns pass and then produced a brilliant overhead pass to the supporting Aki to race clear under the posts.
The Kingspan crowd were rocked but they need not have worried as Coetzee dragged his side and some of the Connacht defence with him into a semi-final date in Glasgow in two weeks’ time.
Ulster: Lowry; Baloucoune, Marshall, McCloskey, Lyttle; Burns, Cooney; O’Sullivan, Best (capt), Kane, Henderson, Treadwell, Timoney, Murphy, Coetzee.
Replacements: Cave for Marshall (40), Shanahan for Cooney (69), Herring for Best (69), O’Toole for Kane (69), O’Connor for Treadwell (73), Reidy for Timoney (79).
Not Used: Warwick, Kernohan.
Connacht: O’Halloran; Fitzgerald, Farrell, Aki, Healy; Carty, Marmion; Buckley, Heffernan, Bealham, Dillane, Thornbury, McKeon, Fainga’a, Butler (capt).
Replacements: Daly for Aki (62), Blade for Marmion (52), McCabe for Buckley (71), Delahunt for Heffernan (57), Carey for Bealham (52), Boyle for Faingaa (65).
Not Used: Masteron, Leader.