Ulster prevailed in the first Magners League interprovincial derby of the season, pulling clear of Connacht in the second half to claim a 30-6 win at the Sportsground.
Brian McLaughlin’s men put 23 unanswered points on their Irish rivals after the break, with tries from BJ Botha, Timoci Nagusa and man-of-the-match Ian Humphreys securing a bonus point and Ulster’s seventh straight win over Connacht.
A converted try from Darren Cave had Ulster 7-6 ahead at half-time and though Connacht deserved more for their dogged display, Ian Keatley’s brace of first quarter penalties was all they had to show in the end.
In a real arm-wrestle of a first half, Keatley sent an early penalty chance away to the left of the posts before Ulster drew first blood with a fourth-minute try.
The visitors made ground with some direct play and a weaving run from the right saw centre Cave brilliantly brush off two tacklers and pile over past Gavin Duffy’s despairing challenge, close to the posts.
Humphreys slotted the simple conversion and Ulster continued to look the more dangerous with ball in hand, albeit with Connacht comfortably soaking up the pressure.
The home back row stood out in that regard, Connacht’s commitment typified by wily flanker Ray Ofisa.
Keatley made it 7-3 with a penalty success after a scrum offence but missed the target with a drop-goal attempt, set up by a strong tackle by Frank Murphy on Simon Danielli.
Ulster eventually lost the services of Danielli through injury and they could not turn pressure into points on the quarter-hour when Fijian winger Nagusa failed to get his pass away to an unmarked Dan Tuohy.
Connacht closed the gap to 7-6 – it remained so until half-time – with full-back Duffy’s impressive catch from his own garryowen teeing up a second successful penalty by Keatley.
Ulster will have rued turning down a kick at goal in response, as a superb turnover on the deck gave Connacht a chance to clear the danger and they showed some much-needed endeavour from a powerful line-break from centre Troy Nathan.
But for all of Connacht’s aggressive defence and confident kicking out of hand, a mistake at the start of the second half prompted their downfall.
Their forwards failed to gather Humphreys’ restart kick and Ulster powered into the 22, sensing an early score. It duly came, Chris Henry was stopped short of the line but a secondary drive saw South Africa prop Botha muscle over from just metres out.
Humphreys’ conversion was added to by penalties after 54 and 59 minutes, sandwiching Keatley’s second miss of the night. Young openside Willie Faloon did well to set up Humphreys’ second penalty, staying on his feet to force a ruck infringement.
Tempers frayed as Connacht struggled to get back in touch. Both sides let their discipline slip somewhat, but Ulster produced a late burst to poach two unconverted tries.
A flat pass from Humphreys sent Nagusa hurtling past Duffy and in at the right corner, and then a deflating turnover near their 22 saw Connacht leak a fourth try - Robbie Diack and Andrew Trimble combining to put Humphreys squeezing over on the left.