CONNACHT 'A' 19 ULSTER RAVENS 18, Barnhall RFC
Scorers: Connacht 'A': Tries: Denis Buckley; Con: Miah Nikora; Pens: Miah Nikora 3, Conor Murphy
Ulster Ravens: Tries: Jonny Shiells, Scott La Valla; Con: Luke Marshall; Pens: Luke Marshall 2
The Ulster Ravens' first defeat of 2010 was compounded by a broken leg sustained by scrum half Cillian Willis during the second half of this encounter.
Played at Parsonstown, the home of Kildare club Barnhall, this was a hard-fought tie which could have gone either way in a dramatic final quarter.
The victorious Connacht side included a mix of senior squad members, talented youngsters and a few notable additions in the form of St. Mary's College winger Darragh Fanning and hooker Joe Merrigan who was playing for English side Coventry up until recently.
Ulster also tried out a number of AIB League players, with Dungannon wingers Chris Cochrane and Craig Gilroy given a chance to impress, along with Dublin University flanker Scott La Valla and Queen's University forwards Paul Karayiannis, Andrew Linton and Mark Robinson.
The game started in poor conditions with driving wind and rain favouring Connacht 'A'. The men from the west made a solid start, with the likes of Johnny O'Connor and underage international Eoin McKeon hitting the breakdown with real purpose.
They forced the Ravens to concede an early penalty just outside their 22, and out-half Miah Nikora, who featured as a replacement against the Dragons on Wednesday, converted the second minute kick.
The Ravens' response was immediate, with young number 10 Luke Marshall using his boot to pin back the Connacht side deep in their half.
The Ulsterman turned down a kickable penalty, signaling their intent to run the ball. Skipper Nigel Brady opting to take the scrum, but unfortunately for the Ravens the scrum collapsed twice and referee Paul Haycock gave the decision to Connacht 'A'.
In the 23rd minute, the Ravens made the breakthrough they were looking for when centre Jonny Shiells used his searing pace to finish off an opportunist try, which Marshall failed to convert.
Full-back Mark Roberts did the initial damage, coming up into the line at pace and linking with flanker Robinson who carried forward and number 8 Thomas Anderson also made some hard yards, before Shiells took it on out wide, hacked through and beat the cover.
New Zealander Nikora soon restored Connacht's lead with a penalty from the ten-metre line, but Neil Doak's men moved ahead for the break as La Valla intercepted a pass near the halfway line and showed a clean pair of heels to the westerners as he scored close to the posts, allowing Marshall an easier conversion.
12-6 down at half-time, Connacht 'A' looked set to concede more points early in the second half when Marshall booted a penalty to touch to set up a lineout catch and drive.
However, the westerners put the pressure on with some committed defending and Marshall was held up close to the line before Anderson knocked on when being tackled and the turnover was made.
Two of Ireland's Sevens internationals, Kieran Campbell and Brian Tuohy, combined coming up to the hour mark to get Connacht within a whisker of their first try.
Scrum half Campbell caught the Ravens defence off guard by taking a quick tap penalty and haring down the blindside. A quick recycle gave winger Tuohy the chance to come in on an angled run.
He made good ground and was closing in on the try-line when the retreating Willis and Gilroy managed to halt his progress. However, Willis injured himself when making that try-saving tackle and he was taken to hospital where a broken fibula was confirmed.
When play resumed, Michael Pyper was introduced in Willis' place and the Ravens also brought on experienced prop Bryan Young who made an immediate impact with two turnovers and he also won a penalty which Marshall sent through the uprights for a 15-6 lead.
Connacht 'A' hit back with a timely try, with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining. Tuohy again caused most of the damage as he broke along the right wing and although the ball went to ground, the westerners' forwards kept it alive with a series of rucks and a maul which resulted in a try for young replacement Denis Buckley. Nikora added the extras to set up a nail-biting finish.
Two minutes later, hands in the ruck from Connacht 'A' allowed Marshall land his second successful penalty - only for Nikora to punish a similar offence with his third, shortly after, in the 70th minute.
The Ravens were still ahead as the game entered injury-time, but Tuohy had other ideas as he found space again on the right wing, taking the ball back into the Ulster half.
The Ulstermen infringed as they competed for possession on the deck, and replacement Conor Murphy from UCG stepped up to smack a brilliant penalty over from distance.
The kick, scored in a difficult cross wind, was enough to see Connacht 'A' over the finish line as they held on to secure a morale-boosting triumph over Doak's high-flying charges.
The Ravens kept playing right to the final whistle and engineered a last-gasp scoring opportunity. Anderson barged his way forward to set up a drop goal shot for Marshall, but the Ballymena clubman did not got the required connection and his effort tailed away from the posts.
CONNACHT 'A': Mark Butler; Brian Touhy, Troy Nathan, Aidan Wynne, Darragh Fanning; Miah Nikora, Kieran Campbell; Ronan Loughney, Joe Merrigan, Conor Higgins, David Nolan, Andrew Browne, Shane Conneely, Johnny O'Connor, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Denis Buckley, James Robinson, Bernie Upton, Adam Kennedy, Conor Murphy, Finn Gormley, Colin Conroy.
ULSTER RAVENS: Mark Roberts; Chris Cochrane, Mark McCrea, Jonny Shiells, Craig Gilroy; Luke Marshall, Paul Marshall; Paul Karayiannis, Nigel Brady (capt), Alan Whitten, Neil McComb, Andrew Linton, Scott La Valla, Mark Robinson, Thomas Anderson.
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Bryan Young, Stephen Mulholland, Paddy Marks, Cillian Willis, Michael Pyper, Michael Allen.
Referee: Paul Haycock (IRFU)