ULSTER captain Rory Best believes his team will have to improve on their performance against Connacht this evening if they are to beat Glasgow Warriors in the PRO14 semi-final at Scotstoun on Friday 17. The home side were always ahead in their quarter-final at Belfast’s Kingspan stadium, but they only made sure of victory in the last minute of the match, eventually winning 21-13. In the other semi-final, Leinster will play host to Munster, who squeaked past Benetton 15-13 earlier this afternoon.
“We had to roll up our sleeves and dig deep,” said Best, for whom this was a last home game before retirement. “An incredible day for us – I’m just delighted we got the right side of it.
“It’s a tough place to go for everyone,” he said of Scotstoun when asked to look ahead to the semi-final against the Warriors. “They’re a quality side. We’ll have to be better again. We’ve two weeks now to dust ourselves down and work out how we’re going to beat a very impressive Glasgow team.”
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland agreed with that analysis, although he was particularly content with one aspect of his team’s performance. “Defensively I thought we were excellent – and we needed to defend more than we wanted to,” he said.
“The last time we went [to Scotstoun] it wasn’t a happy hunting ground for us. They’re a very attacking-minded team, so we’ll have to be on top of our game even to have a chance over there.”
Ulster will certainly have to improve on their lineout, which Connacht disrupted on several occasions. But, while the visitors proved useful at breaking down some of the Ulster attacks, they did not offer enough in offence when it mattered most, and, while always in the game, they were never ahead.
A John Cooney penalty got the home team off the mark, then an unconverted try by Nick Timoney made it 8-0. Jack Carty scored the visitors’ first points of the game with a penalty after half an hour, but Cooney restored his team’s eight-point lead with the last kick of the first half.
Connacht fought back in the third quarter, and a Bundee Aki try, converted by Carty, brought them back to within a point at 11-10. Cooney made it 14-10 with a penalty just inside the final quarter, but another Carty penalty made it a one-point game again.
Ulster needed to hold their nerve, and they did so superbly, controlling play for a long stretch of possession until, three minutes from the end, man-of-the-match Marcell Coetzee powered over to make it 19-13. With a minute left, a missed conversion would have meant that Connacht could win the match with a full score, but Billy Burns’ two-pointer was on target.
Meanwhile, at Thomond Park, Benetton, who had reached the play-offs for the first time by finishing third in Conference B, led Munster 10-3 at the break thanks to a try by Ratuva Tavuyara and a conversion and penalty from Tommy Allan. They were still 13-6 ahead going into the last quarter after Allan was on target with another penalty, but in the end Munster just got the better of them thanks to a late, long-range JJ Hanrahan penalty – a controversial decision by referee Nigel Owens given Munster’s CJ Stander did not appear to be supporting his own body weight while competing for the ball on the ground.
That was Hanrahan’s third successful kick at goal, while Tyler Bleyendaal scored the other two for Munster. Benetton missed two drop-goal attempts in the dying minutes, and were unfortunate to lose to a badly off-form Munster side.
“It was a difficult game,” home captain Peter O’Mahony said. “I think Benetton have been one of the in-form teams of the PRO14 this year. They put us under huge pressure and we probably weren’t clinical in the first half. They took their chances.
“Poor skill execution, poor decision-making at times when we offloaded, when we put ourselves in some great positions . . . . We’ve just got to learn to be a little bit more patient at times.”
Fri 17: Glasgow Warriors v Ulster (Scotstoun, 7.35pm).
Sat 18: Leinster v Munster (RDS, 3pm).
Final: Celtic Park, Saturday 25 May, kick-off 5.30pm.