Ryan Byrne/INPHO Tom Daly tackles Aled Summerhill.
gael force
Wootton the hero as Connacht secure bonus point win over Cardiff
Andy Friend’s side beat their Conference B rivals in a tense encounter at The Sportsground.

Connacht 32

Cardiff Blues 17

Garry Doyle reports from The Sportsground

IN A WINDSWEPT Galway, a Gael force of a different kind stormed into view. Alex Wootton, on loan from Munster, reminded his Limerick team-mates what they are missing as he scored the ninth and tenth tries of his season to put some distance between Connacht and Cardiff on the scoreboard as well as the Conference B table.

A place in next season’s Champions Cup is Connacht’s to throw away now. As for a place in this year’s Pro14 final, well that’s a different story.

They won here but the fact that Edinburgh lost elsewhere is almost as significant. Andy Friend and his team were in the market for a favour, needing not just a victory of their own, preferably with a bonus point attached, but also a defeat for Munster in Murrayfield.

When just one of those requests arrived, reality dawned. With four games left – including a Thomond Park date between Munster and Connacht next month – it’s hard to see how Friend’s team can overtake the nine-point deficit that separates first from second in Conference B.

The damage was done last month, firstly when they failed to exploit the two-man advantage they had over Munster in the dying moments of their derby here in Galway. If that defeat was bad, the subsequent loss to Ospreys a fortnight later was worse, especially when Munster then proceeded to snatch a last-gasp win in Treviso.

The upshot is that Connacht will probably have to be content with second place, a prize they’d have greedily accepted in any other season, but one that has reduced value in this shortened, Covid-affected campaign. Yes, Champions Cup rugby is to be welcomed but you also want something in the now and barring a Munster meltdown – or another adjustment of the league’s structure – that is unlikely to happen.

rory-thornton-wins-a-line-out-ball James Crombie / INPHO Cardiff's Rory Thornton wins a lineout. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Enough about all that because it was a privilege to be here, at a live sporting event, even if we were watching a scrappy game initially, spoiled by Connacht’s inability to secure primary possession from their own line-out.

Still, there was some decent rugby played in the opening half hour. The problem for Connacht was that Cardiff were the ones producing it, going 7-0 ahead with a Rhys Carré try, which stemmed initially from Aled Summerhill’s sizzling break down the left wing.

While Gavin Thornbury intervened to prevent that burst turning into points, a subsequent penalty and well executed line-out drive eventually led to Carré crossing after Liam Belcher and Ellis Jenkins had made earlier impressions.

At this stage of proceedings, Connacht were struggling to find their rhythm but as soon as they managed to speed up the delivery of their ball, points followed. Jack Carty kicked a couple of penalties in the 15th and 21st minutes and Connacht were on their way.

Well kind of. They still had to concentrate on administering the killer punch more reliably and as they pondered that problem in their heads, Jason Tovey slotted over a 26th minute penalty to boost Cardiff’s lead to four, 10-6.

Wootton would soon overturn that as he turned the game on its head with his mazy dribble, slicing through the Cardiff midfield – Harri Millard left for dead, full-back Matthew Morgan far too slow to sense the danger, allowing Wootton to cross. Carty, the supplier of the final pass to his winger, added the extras. 

A second Wootton try followed on the stroke of half-time when he again displayed his pace with a surging run down the right, Dave Heffernan the provider of the final pass this time, after Thornbury and Carty had punched earlier holes in the Cardiff defence.

Cardiff were suffering, 20-10 down at half-time.

They needed this win, considering they trailed Connacht by six points in the table coming into the match, and they certainly didn’t need to find out just before the game that two of their players, Mason Grady and Ben Thomas, were unable to travel to Galway because of Government stipulations in relation to Covid testing.

alex-wootton-on-his-way-to-scoring-his-second-try James Crombie / INPHO Wootton touches down for his second try. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Those who did make it through departures put up a decent show for a while but their problems stemmed from their ability to disappear for chunks of the game.

It looked for a short time in the second half that they had found their way back into it, Corey Domachowski, their replacement loosehead, getting over the line after another well worked set-piece. 

With the try converted, three points separating the teams and 17 minutes left on the clock, it was, theoretically, anyone’s game. Yet it never felt that way, Connacht remaining in control, before they  troubled the scorers with two further tries of their own in the final quarter.

This time their set-piece was the primary source of the scores, the earlier problems disappearing in this department, as they secured possession and then set about getting across the Cardiff line. They managed it twice in those closing minutes, Jarrad Butler scoring on 67 minutes, Abraham Papali’I on 77. The bonus point was theirs, the gap to Cardiff stretched to 11. Third-place Scarlets are seven behind but Connacht have a game in hand. For Friend, a good rather than great season looks set to unfold.


Connacht scorers

Tries Wooton 2, Butler, Papali’I

Conversions Carty (3/4)

Penalties Carty (2/2)

Cardiff scorers

Tries R Carré, Domachowski

Conversions Tovey (1/1) Morgan (1/1)

Penalties Tovey (1/2)

Connacht: John Porch (rep. T O’Halloran 64′), Alex Wootton, Tom Daly (rep: S O’Brien 78), Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade (rep: Kieran Marmion 57′), Jordan Duggan (rep. Denis Buckley 47′), Dave Heffernan (rep: Shane Delahunt 57′), Finlay Bealham (rep. J Aungier 57′), Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury (rep O Dowling 57′), Eoghan Masterson (rep: Abraham Papali’I 72), Jarrad Butler (CAPT) Paul Boyle.

Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Owen Lane, Harri Millard (rep Max Llewellyn 55′), Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill; Jason Tovey (rep Dan Fish 57′), Lloyd Williams; Rhys Carré (rep Corey Domachowski 56′), Liam Belcher (rep Kirby Myhill ’56), Dmitri Arhip (Keiron Assiratti 46′), Seb Davies (rep B Murphy 65′), Rory Thornton, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Ellis Jenkins (rep Gwilym Bradley ’68), Josh Turnbull (CAPT).

Replacements not used:  Jamie Hill 

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)

Assistant Referees: Chris Busby, Peter Martin (both IRFU)

TMO: Frank Murphy (IRFU)

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