Pro12: Ulster 18-10 Connacht

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Pro12 highlights: Ulster end Connacht's winning run with 18-12 victory
Ulster: 11 (18)
Tries: Best, Gilroy Con: Jackson Pens: Jackson 2
Connacht: 3 (10)
Tries: Blade Con: O'Leary Pen: O'Leary

Ulster boosted their hopes of a place in the Pro12 play-offs as they ended the six-match winning run of leaders Connacht in a bruising contest.

Under-strength Connacht, despite being down to 13 men late on, battled superbly to deny Ulster a bonus point.

Two Paddy Jackson kicks and a Rory Best try helped Ulster lead 11-3 at half-time with Shane O'Leary replying.

Jared Payne's off-load set up Craig Gilroy's 44th-minute score with Caolin Blade replying with a Connacht try.

Ulster's win at Kingspan Stadium moves them up to fourth in the table although that could be short-lived with both Munster and sixth-placed Glasgow in action on Saturday.

Rory Best battles with Connacht wing Matt Healy at Kingspan Stadium
Ireland captain Rory Best (left) was back in action for Ulster against Connacht

Ulster welcome back Ireland trio

The contest was a must-win game for the home side as they welcomed back Ireland stars Best, Payne and Andrew Trimble.

Connacht were forced to field fourth-choice fly-half O'Leary, making his first Pro12 start, while Ireland scrum-half Kieran Marmion was among the notable absentees as Pat Lam's side showed seven changes from last weekend's win over Leinster.

As has been a feature all season, Connacht attempted to run the ball out of their own defence early on but struggled to make headway.

Aly Muldowney and Andrew Browne were both penalised for holding on in the tackle as Jackson kicked Ulster into a 6-0 lead by the 13th minute.

A misfiring line-out hindered a number of promising positions for the visitors. In contrast, Ulster took their opportunity in the crucial set-piece area in the 28th minute after Jackson had turned down another straightforward three points to kick for the corner.

Franco van Merwe gathered Best's throw and the ball was recycled back to the Ulster skipper to maul his way over the Connacht line.

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Les Kiss delighted by Ulster's crucial Pro12 win over Connacht

Franco van Merwe gathered Best's throw and the ball was recycled back to the Ulster skipper to maul his way over the Connacht line.

Late cards hinder Connacht

Undeterred, Connacht continued to run the ball and after Niyi Adeolokun and scrum-half John Cooney had threatened in the Ulster 22, O'Leary opened his account in first-half injury-time after an earlier effort had hit an upright.

With lock Peter Browne particularly prominent, Ulster's pressure following the restart set up Gilroy's try, with man of the match Payne delivering a superb off-load after good work by Jackson, who added the conversion to extend the home lead to 18-3.

The introduction of Ireland pair Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham helped spur the visitors to produce pressure and with Andrew Trimble in the sin-bin, Connacht replacement scrum-half Blade finished off a fine move involving Matt Healy and impressive number eight Eoin McKeon in the 53rd minute.

Heroic Connacht defence prevented a second Best try in the 65th minute as the Ireland hooker was held up.

Fly-half O'Leary was unlucky to be sin-binned 10 minutes from time as referee Dudley Phillips' patience ran out after a number of Connacht indiscretions.

Connacht were then reduced to 13 as replacement Sean O'Brien saw yellow, but the visitors refused to buckle in the closing eight minutes of action as Ulster had to be content with the four points.

Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), R Lutton; P Browne, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson.

Replacements: R Herring for Best 65 (Best for Herring 70), K McCall for Black 53, B Ross for Lutton 76, R Diack for Browne 57, S Reidy for C Henry 53, P Marshall for Pienaar 65, S Olding for McCloskey 75, D Cave for L Marshall 62, R Herring for Henderson 77.

Connacht: R Henshaw; N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; S O'Leary, J Cooney; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; A Browne, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), J Connolly, E McKeon.

Replacements: D Heffernan for McCartney 70, R Loughney for Buckley 70, F Bealham for Ah You 45, U Dillane for Muldowney 45, S O'Brien for Connolly 62, C Blade for Cooney 53, D Poolman for Adeolokun 53.

Not used: C Brennan

Referee: D Phillips (IRFU)

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