With numerous key players rested - and John Afoa unavailable due to suspension - Tom Court, Ian Humphreys and Stefan Terblanche were the only starters from last week's historic European triumph to run out in today's first XV. Tactical reshuffling saw Jackson wear 12 while Ian Whitten and Adam D'Arcy occupied the wing berths. Meanwhile Paddy McAllister, Neil McComb and Mike McComish all got rare starts in the pack.
Miah Nikora opened the scoring for the Galwaymen with a third-minute penalty, before Humphreys, kicking into a swirling wind, missed the chance to equalise four minutes later. This was to prove costly, as Nikora ghosted over the line in the Westerners' very next attack, using all his agility to avoid tackles from both Robbie Diack and D'Arcy. The out-half's conversion veered off-target, however, so the score on 10 minutes sat at Connacht 8 Ulster 0.
A second errant kick from Humphreys followed on 13 minutes, its flight once again contaminated by the wind, but Ulster then began to string some passes together, and worked themselves into a position from where they could begin to mount some veritable pressure. Then, with Ronan Loughney yellow-carded for a very late tackle on Humphreys, Jackson kicked Ulster's first points of the contest, while his out-half continued to receive treatment for Loughney's challenge.
With Connacht players illegally coming off their feet moments later, skipper Nigel Brady opted for Jackson to continue with kicking duties, and the youngster justified his captain's faith with a second sensational penalty to bring Ulster within two points of their opponents.
Connacht skipper Gavin Duffy had other ideas, however, picking up down the right wing from Kyle Tonetti on the half-hour to ground the second home try and put a converted score between the sides, at Connacht 13 Ulster 6.
The game continued to follow its see-saw rhythm with Ulster next on the scoresheet once again. As has been the case several times already this season, Paul Marshall's sharpness of mind was to thank for the 35th-minute try, as the scrum-half exposed a gap in the Connacht line and stretched over after fishing the ball out of a five-metre maul. Jackson continued his 100% kicking record with the conversion, restoring parity at Connacht 13 Ulster 13.
Unfortunately this was to prove Marshall's final input in the match, as, with the clock at 37 minutes, he succumbed to a knock sustained in his try-scoring move and was replaced by Ruan Pienaar. However, there was still enough time for Jackson to put Ulster ahead at the break courtesy of a blinding long-range penalty.
Half-Time Score Connacht 13 Ulster 16
The lead was to prove ephemeral, however, as the game swung back in Connacht's favour from the restart. Sprightly winger Tiernan O'Halloran resisted a desperate Pienaar tackle at the opening of the second half to ground his side's third try, and Nikora steered his conversion through the posts despite the still-strong wind.
More Ulster disappointment followed as a scuffed long-distance penalty from Pienaar on 46 minutes span well wide, but a superbly muscular charge down the left wing from Nevin Spence got the visitors back into the danger zone on 50 minutes, and patient recycling a hair's breadth from the try-line eventually saw Jackson touch down with Spence propelling him over from behind. Jackson's conversion kick was marginally off-target, but his fine work had edged his team into the lead at Connacht 20 Ulster 21.
Ulster were fortunate not to concede try number four on the hour as several poor tackling attempts allowed Connacht Number Eight George Naoupu to gain a good 20 metres before he was brought down, and Nikora kicked his side back into the lead at Connacht 23 Ulster 21 with a subsequent penalty.
With Lewis Stevenson and his opposite number Michael Swift sinbinned on 62 minutes for some ugly brawling, Connacht showed a good deal of savvy by keeping the ball in the middle of the park for a full 10 minutes, biding their time until an opening presented itself. This came as an infringement from replacement forward Ali Birch saw him take over from Stevenson in the bin on 73 minutes, and Nikora extended the gap to five points from the resulting penalty.
The Westerners went on to close out the match deep in Ulster territory, and although Ulster spent the final minutes in possession, a stubborn line from Connacht contained them well out of danger. Victory next Friday at home to Leinster - and another heroic result at Thomond Park in the final match of the season proper on May 5 - are now necessary if Ulster are to progress to the semi-final stage of the domestic league.
Full-Time Score Connacht 26 Ulster 21
(15 - 9) G Duffy (c); T O'Halloran, K Tonetti, H Fa'afili, F Vainikolo; M Nikora, F Murphy
(1 - 8) B Wilkinson, E Reynecke, R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu
Replacements (16 - 23) A Flavin, D Buckley, R Ah You, M Kearney, J O'Connor, P O'Donohoe, M Jarvis, E Griffin
(15 - 9) S Terblanche; I Whitten, N Spence, P Jackson, A D'Arcy; I Humphreys, P Marshall
(1 - 8) P McAllister, N Brady (c), T Court; L Stevenson, N McComb; M McComish, W Faloon, R Diack
Replacements (16 - 23) A Kyriacou, C Black, A Macklin, I Henderson, A Birch, R Pienaar, C Gilroy, M Allen
|Connacht Rugby Score Card|
|Ulster Rugby Score Card|