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Dublin: 8 °C Sunday 26 January, 2020
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Connacht stare down the barrel of defeat, but dig out miraculous win

Late tries from Shane Delahunt and Robin Copeland turned the game on its head in a frenetic finale.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht 27

Gloucester 24

THEY’RE STUTTERING, THEY’RE under-performing and they are tip-toeing on the verge of being knocked out of the running.

But Connacht just will not allow themselves be counted out of this Champions Cup pool, however slim the chances grow.

The western province looked dead and buried with 10 minutes to go – both in terms of the match and the pool – as they trailed 13-24. But staged the most frenetic and fantastic comeback with Shane Delahunt and Robin Copeland scoring tries to keep them limping gloriously on to round five.

Gloucester will kick themselves for coughing up this game, but they will take two points away after bullying their way to a second half bonus point.

Though the early afternoon sunshine cast long shadows across the Sportsground, the home side struggled to warm their way into an early rhythm on a bitterly cold day by Lough Atalia.

A much-changed pack suffered with the destructive influence of Gloucester’s big bodies. Eoin McKeon’s 10th-minute sin-bin threatened to set Connacht back further. Yet rather than be derailed by the card, it served to tighten the host’s focus. Experimental fullback Jack Carty stepped into the line and went close to executing a sublime, curling through-ball into the path of Niyi Adeolokun on an advantage play.

The wing – heavily strapped on his left leg as if to act as an emblem for his side’s injury toll – could not clamp his hands onto the bouncing ball and so the home fans had to be content with a Fitzgerald penalty to open the scoring.

Connacht’s next attack could well have yielded a card as Louis Rees-Zammit knocked down a grubber that John Porch aimed in behind him towards the 22. With a bonus point win the main goal, they moved to attack from the line-out.

And while the initial effort was thwarted, Adeolokun succumbed to injury to leave Connacht attacking with just 13 players and then defending after coughing up a turnover, a scrappy passage of play ended with Caolin Blade celebrating as he believed he forced a drop from Callum Braley and tapped down beyond the try-line.

The TMO ruled Blade offside on that occasion, but he would soon grab a score to help his team to a 10-0 lead. With Todd Gleave in the bin, the scrum laid the platform for tight phases with Paul Boyle and Jarrad Butler making crucial carries before the powerful scrum-half barged his way over the whitewash.

alex-craig-and-tom-daly-14122019 Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Unfortunately, the daylight between the sides was soon cut down as the visitors hungrily snapped at their first serious venture into opposition territory. The power in the cherry and white pack was made to count as they mounted a pick and drive attack. And with McKeon receiving lengthy treatment after a collision there was no man advantage  to aid Connacht’s defensive efforts before former Munster lock Gerbrandt Grobler forced the scoreboard to 10-7 at half-time.

With their big-hitters on the bench, Andy Friend’s side were primed to finish strong, but no sooner had the replacements began rumbling on that Connacht were again undone with a self-inflicted setback. After a brilliant effort from John Porch to force a turnover after the electric Ollie Thorley broke towards the 22, Connacht looked to counter attack immediately and were immediately rueing the decision as Godwin’s pass was picked off by Mark Atkinson and the big centre cantered to the line. 

The shifting intentions and requirements for Connacht were on full show. After two more penalties were sent to the corner for a fruitless return, Fitzgerald took the opportunity to at least leave his side in the lead entering the final quarter, but it was a short-lived one.

Rees-Zammit, having successfully tormented the Westerners last week, was unleashed on an absolute scorcher of a breakaway down the right. And even when he was tackled the 18-year-old managed to unleash an offload from behind his back as he twisted to avoid the touchline. Lewis Ludlow was ideally placed to finish.

Connacht’s race appeared to be run when Atkinson barged over to give Gloucester a fourth try. But this province is nothing if not proud and devout in the belief in their attack.

jarrad-butler-and-conor-fitzgerald-celebrates-14122019 Source: James Crombie/INPHO

After Delahunt grabbed a 74th minute try and Ludlow yellow-carded, the crowd demanded a grandstand finish and Bundee Aki ensured they got full value with a big line-break to give his side the front foot.

With impetus in hand they ate up ground and through phases before Tom Daly followed up a break with an audacious offload into the grateful arms of Robin Copeland and the veteran 8 cantered in calmly while the crowd hailed the miracle.

Scorers

Connacht

Tries: C Blade, S Delahunt, R Copeland

Conversions: C Fitzgerald (3/3)

Penalties: C Fitzgerald (2/2)

Gloucester

Tries: G Grobler, M Atkinson (2) L Ludlow

Conversions:B Twelvetrees (2/4)

Connacht: Jack Carty,  Niyi Adeolokun (Tom Daly ’20),  Kyle Godwin, Bundee Aki, John Porch, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade ( Stephen Kerins ’63): Peter McCabe (Denis Buckley ’42), Dave Heffernan (Shane Delahunt ’71), Dominic Robertson McCoy (Finlay Bealham ’52), Ultan Dillane,  Joe Maksymiw (Niall Murray ’70, Eoin McKeon (Eoghan Masterson’65), Jarrad Butler,  Paul Boyle (Robin Copeland ’71)

Gloucester : Matt Banahan,  Louis Rees-Zammit, Billy Twelvetrees,  Mark Atkinson,  Ollie Thorley,  Lloyd Evans,  Callum Braley (Joe Simpson ’72): Josh Hohneck (Alex Saville ’70), Todd Gleave (Franco Marais ’65), Fraser Balmain (Jamal Ford-Robinson ’45), Alex Craig, Gerbrandt Grobler, Freddie Clarke (Aaron Hinkley ’64)  Lewis Ludlow, Ruan Ackermann (Ben Morgan ’64).

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About the author:

Sean Farrell  / Reports from The Sportsground.

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