the west is awake
Carty steers Connacht back to Champions Cup with nail-biting Cardiff win
Andy Friend’s side survived a tense finale to secure a place in the Pro14 play-offs.

Connacht 29 

Cardiff Blues 22 

Ryan Bailey reports from the Sportsground

IT WAS NEVER going to be an armchair ride, not with so much at stake and in these conditions, but Connacht pitched up ready to do whatever was required of them to get the job done here, and that’s exactly what they did.

Andy Friend’s side had to fight tooth and nail to get past a Cardiff Blues side intent on spoiling the Galway party and they responded with a performance bristling with intent, bravery, hard work and, at crucial times, moments of quality.

Bundee Aki celebrates after Gavin Thornbury scored his sides second try James Crombie / INPHO Bundee Aki celebrates Thornbury's first-half try. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

A four-try victory over their Conference A rivals not only books Connacht’s place in a first Pro14 play-off since they won the title in 2016, but, more significantly, a return to the top table of European rugby for next season. 

It was fitting that Jack Carty played the starring role here, scoring 14 crucial points including a brilliant second-half try, but there were big performances across the park as the western province set-up a mouth-watering quarter-final showdown with Ulster with a game to spare.

First-half tries from Caolin Blade and Gavin Thornbury had given the hosts an invaluable half-time advantage and, playing into the wind upon the restart, managed the conditions expertly to extend their advantage through Carty. 

Cardiff, themselves chasing a top-three finish, knew they needed a win in Galway and threw everything at Connacht but the green shirts fronted up time and time again, producing heroic resistance in defence, with Paul Boyle, Ultan Dillane and Thornbury just three outstanding performers. 

Olly Robinson’s seven-pointer in the far corner had given the visitors fresh hope heading into the final 10 minutes, but Connacht again showed their capacity to dig deep and produce big-game moments as Matt Healy proved the match-winner, sending the capacity crowd into raptures at the final whistle.

Connacht join Leinster, Munster and Ulster in the end-of-season play-offs and next season’s Champions Cup pool stages, with the western and northern provinces set to meet in Belfast on the first weekend of May.

Friend’s side now have a week off before their final regular-season game away at Munster in a fortnight, and they can certainly enjoy this hard-earned win, after making excellent progress in the Australian’s first season in charge. 

The wind and rain contrived to make this a high-stakes contest fraught with tension, and with Connacht losing the toss and being asked to play with the gale at their backs in the first period, it was imperative they took advantage and established a scoreboard lead.

Paul Boyle makes a break to set up the opening try James Crombie / INPHO Paul Boyle had an excellent game for Connacht. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Carty was handed an early opportunity to do so but, having nailed half a dozen kicks from the exact position during his warm-up, pushed a 25-metre penalty high and wide after Colby Fainga’a had locked himself over the ball, forcing his opposite number, Robinson, to hold on. 

Cardiff’s plan in possession was clear, and their ball retention was excellent through the phases, forcing Connacht to commit two defenders to the tackle more often than not as they pushed and probed inside opposition territory. 

Having absorbed wave-after-wave of Blues attack, Tom Farrell came up trumps with a pressure-relieving turnover and with Carty’s booming touch-finder on this near side putting Connacht in prime attacking position, the hosts struck off the ensuing lineout.

Worked in-field by the forwards, Boyle showed brilliant opportunism after spotting there was no pillar defender at the ruck, the flanker gleefully picking the ball up and striding clear, before offloading superbly off the ground for the supporting Blade to run it home for a TMO-awarded seven-pointer.

It was the perfect settler for Friend’s side, but Cardiff rebounded strongly. 

Fainga’a thought he had forced another turnover in the jackal position but referee Mike Adamson had already blown to penalise the Connacht openside for being off his feet, and Gareth Anscombe — with the teeth of the gale in his face — opted for the scrum 30 metres out.

Connacht had initially stood firm to shut the door but after Farrell lost the ball in contact on the far side, Cardiff came back at them with even greater intent and their capacity to consistently break the gainline and find space around the edges caused huge problems.

With Anscombe pulling the strings, and the powerful midfield pairing of Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo bringing a two-pronged threat, Connacht were opened up too easily on this near side as Owen Lane showed his turn of pace to scythe through the gap between Carty and Daragh Leader. 

Connacht were quickly back into the task and after appearing to spurn a promising attacking position when Boyle knocked on attempting to replicate his earlier break, the Wexford man wasn’t down for long as he forced Seb Davies to concede the penalty.

Owen Lane celebrates scoring a try Tommy Dickson / INPHO Owen Lane scored Cardiff's first-half try. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

From the resulting lineout, Connacht turned to their rolling maul and with Boyle again at the heart of it and Dominic Robertson-McCoy in the driving seat, the home side powered over the whitewash, second row Thornbury applying the finishing touch.

Leader held the tee for Carty and the out-half couldn’t have judged the wind any better as he bisected the posts from the touchline, bringing the ball back from left to right for a 14-7 lead. 

But his next attempt was nowhere near as sweet. The Ireland international could have extended Connacht’s interval advantage out to 10 points but the groans from the Bohermore Terrace confirmed it was only missing on one side. 

Even with their noses in front, Connacht desperately needed the first score of the second period to maintain the momentum, and Farrell’s offload for Healy to grubber through on the left touchline pressed the hosts into attacking mode again.

The chase was good and Denis Buckley made up impressive ground to complete the turnover, for Carty to find touch and eventually tack three points onto the board after Cardiff were again penalised at the breakdown. 

Bundee Aki had shipped a heavy knock in the previous passage but there was no way he was coming off, and a deft offload out of the tackle for Leader on the far side set the wheels in motion for Carty’s sweet seven-pointer.

Showing patience and precision with ball in hand, Connacht punched holes in the Cardiff rearguard before sweeping it from right to left after Aki kept the move alive, with Farrell following suit to release Tiernan O’Halloran from the 22.

With Cardiff stretched and scrambling, Healy’s pace proved an excellent weapon again and when Buckley pulled it back for Carty, the out-half mixed vision and skill to kick into the space, wrestle his way past Matthew Morgan and carry over the line to send the capacity crowd into raptures. 24-7.

It prompted Cardiff to change their entire front row and the Welsh region instantly went about eating into the deficit through Anscombe’s penalty, before pitching tent inside the Connacht 22.

Jack Carty kicks a head to score a try Tommy Dickson / INPHO Carty kicks ahead to score. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

The hosts forced the knock-on but in an attempt to run themselves out of danger again, Aki was ripped of the ball in contact and Connacht were left horribly exposed, with Jason Harries diving for the line in the far corner.

Kieran Marmion, just on for Blade, showed immense bravery to tackle the big Cardiff winger towards the touchline as he stretched one-handed to finish, the replacement scrum-half curtailing his own involvement after failing a HIA.

But it was a crucial intervention as, after lengthy video recourse with his TMO, Adamson adjudged that Harries’ hand had touched the corner flag before he got it down and the try was ruled out. Cardiff coach John Mulvihill was not pleased. 

Cardiff, in search of an attacking spark to break Connacht’s stoic resistance, brought Jarrod Evans on and shifted Anscombe to fullback and their unrelenting pressure on the Connacht line eventually told as Robinson got over off a lineout maul. 

Anscombe displayed his mettle as he arrowed the touchline conversion between the sticks to make it a seven-point game with nine minutes left on the clock, but Connacht gave themselves much-needed breathing room when Healy produced a moment of brilliance.

Off the restart, Robin Copeland forced a Cardiff hand to knock it backwards, Fainga’a hacked it on and when Lane lost control of the ball five yards from his own touchline, Healy was on hand to collect and acrobatically finish as he collided with the corner flag. 

The referee again sought the assistance of his TMO and after the officials decided the try was good, the 6,229 crammed inside this ground roared in utter delight and relief, although Harries’ 79th-minute try ensured there was still a nail-biting finish to come. 

But there was to be no denying Connacht as one final defensive set saw Matthew Burke emerge with the ball, allowing Blade to get his hands on it and boot it over the Clan Terrace.

Job done, the west is well and truly awake.

Connacht scorers:

Tries: Caolin Blade, Gavin Thornbury, Jack Carty, Matt Healy.  
Conversions: Jack Carty [3 from 4].
Penalties: Jack Carty [1 from 3].

Cardiff scorers:

Tries: Owen Lane, Olly Robinson, Jason Harries. 
Conversions: Gareth Anscombe [2 from 3].
Penalties: Gareth Anscombe [1 from 1].

CONNACHT: 15. Tiernan O’Halloran (Tom Daly 79′), 14. Darragh Leader (Cian Kelleher 51′) 13. Tom Farrell, 12. Bundee Aki, 11. Matt Healy, 10. Jack Carty, 9. Caolin Blade (Kieran Marmion 59′); 1. Denis Buckley (Matthew Burke 72′), 2. Dave Heffernan (Shane Delahunt 64′), 3. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (Conor Carey 45′), 4. Ultan Dillane, 5. Gavin Thornbury (James Cannon 75′), 6. Paul Boyle, 7. Colby Fainga’a, 8. Jarrad Butler (captain)(Robin Copeland 64′).

CARDIFF BLUES: 15. Matthew Morgan (Jarrod Evans 57′), 14. Owen Lane, 13. Rey Lee-Lo, 12. Willis Halaholo (Garvyn Smith 66′), 11. Jason Harries, 10. Gareth Anscombe (captain), 9. Tomos Williams (Lloyd Williams 66′); 1. Rhys Gill (Rhys Carre 51′), 2. Ethan Lewis (Liam Belcher 51′), 3. Dillon Lewis, (Dmitru Arhip 51′) 4. George Earle, 5. Rory Thornton, 6. Josh Turnbull, 7. Olly Robinson, 8. Seb Davies. 

Replacements not used: 19. Shane Lewis-Hughes, 20. James Botham.

Referee: Mike Adamson [SRU].

Subscribe to our new podcast, The42 Rugby Weekly, here:

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel