Connacht rung in the New Year by bringing to an end their nine-game losing streak in the Celtic League. Tries from Matt Lacey, David Slemen and Conor McPhillips helped them beat Ulster 22-12.
CELTIC LEAGUE: Saturday, December 31
CONNACHT 22 ULSTER 12, The Sportsground (Att: 2,100)
Scorers: Connacht: Tries: Matt Lacey, David Slemen, Conor McPhillips; Cons: Slemen 2; Pen: Slemen
Ulster: Pens: David Humphreys 4
Ulster slumped to their third consecutive defeat as Michael Bradley's squad rotation policy - which saw him make ten changes to the side that lost 36-17 to Munster last Tuesday - worked to a tee as Connacht claimed just their second win against their provincial rivals in twelve encounters since 1998.
Ulster, third-placed before kick-off, put in a listless display, falling to score in the entire second half as talismanic fly-half David Humphreys kicked their only points.
They led 12-7 at the break, making use of a hefty wind advantage in wet conditions, but failing to put any of their potent backs in try-scoring opportunities. Ulster winger Tommy Bowe was left scratching his head as his bid to join Mike Mullins (v Caerphilly) and Derrick Lee (v Leinster) as the only players to have tallied five career tries in the league against a single opponent floundered.
Mark McCall's side did make the better start - Humphreys landed a 30-metre penalty after only 3 minutes. Ireland's record points scorer repeated the trick, this time from just inside his own half, on 17 minutes to push Ulster 6-0 in front.
Despite their lead, Ulster were being pushed off the ball by their seemingly hungrier opponents and Connacht deservedly got in for the opening try, five minutes later.
Following four phases close to the visitors' line, one of which saw hooker John Fogarty just held up, flanker Lacey was hauled over the line in a pushover drive. Fly-half Slemen converted for the lead but Humphreys whacked over his third and fourth penalties on 30 and 35 minutes to hand Ulster a five-point buffer.
The second half was just six minutes old when the Irish-qualified Slemen shimmed over in the right corner for Connacht's second try. The westerners pilled on the pressure up front and Chris Keane switched play out to the blindside where Slemen had enough gas to beat his man.
The conversion was missed but Slemen added the extras to winger McPhillips' try, ten minutes later. This time the Connacht backs laid the platform - Keane sent Matt Mostyn haring through a gap - the former Ireland international did well to take the ball one-handed - and McPhillips looped up on his outside to collect the pass and score his 17th league try in three seasons.
It was a shrewd score and Ulster heads further dropped when Slemen kicked a subsequent penalty for 22-12.
The visitors did get close to nabbing a try in the final quarter. They were helped when Connacht number eight Colm Rigney was sin-binned, two minutes from the end, for a ruck offence, but the home defence held out.
TIMELINE: 3 minutes - Ulster penalty: David Humphreys - 0-3; 17 mins - Ulster penalty: David Humphreys - 0-6; 22 mins - Connacht try: Matt Lacey - 5-6; conversion: David Slemen - 7-6; 30 mins - Ulster penalty: David Humphreys - 7-9; 35 mins - Ulster penalty: David Humphreys - 7-12; HALF-TIME - Connacht 7 Ulster 12; 46 mins - Connacht try: David Slemen - 12-12; 56 mins - Connacht try: Conor McPhillips - 17-12; conversion: David Slemen - 19-12; 62 mins - Connacht pen: David Slemen - 22-12; 78 mins - Connacht yellow card: Colm Rigney; FULL-TIME - Connacht 22 Ulster 12
Connacht: Matt Mostyn; Ted Robinson, John Hearty, Keith Matthews, Conor McPhillips; David Slemen, Chris Keane; Ray Hogan, John Fogarty, Stephen Knoop, Christian Short, Andrew Farley (capt), John Muldoon, Matt Lacey, Colm Rigney.
Replacements used: Michael Swift for Farley (55 mins), Brendan O'Connor for Lacey (74), Andrew Mailei for Robinson (76); Not used: Joe Merrigan, Adrian Clarke, Tom Tierney, Paul Warwick.
Ulster: Bryn Cunningham; Tommy Bowe, Kevin Maggs, Andrew Trimble, Paul Steinmetz; David Humphreys, Kieran Campbell; Justin Fitzpatrick, Rory Best, Simon Best (capt), Justin Harrison, Rowan Frost, Neil Best, Neil McMillan, Roger Wilson.
Replacements used: Isaac Boss for Campbell (50 mins), Bryan Young for Fitzpatrick (55), James Topping for Maggs (65), Ryan Caldwell for Frost (70), Stephen Ferris for McMillan (74); Not used: Nigel Brady, Adam Larkin.
Referee: Alan Lewis (IRFU); Touch Judges: Ger English, Paul Haycock (both IRFU)