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Friend's Connacht overcome injury crisis to notch impressive win over Montpellier

Conor Fitzgerald’s penalty edged the western province to their impressive victory.

Connacht 23

Montpellier 20

THIS WEEK’S INJURY crisis meant some people had written Connacht off.

To then lose captain Jarrad Butler and wings Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun before kick-off was cruel, but Andy Friend’s side muscled up and beat Top 14 heavyweights Montpellier on a joyous return to the Heineken Champions Cup after a two-year absence. 

There were nervy moments but this was a deserved victory in front of a vocal 6,229 sell-out crowd at the Sportsground in Galway to leave Connacht firmly in the mix in Pool 5.

bundee-aki-celebrates-a-turnover Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Next weekend sees them visit Toulouse after the French side’s victory away to Gloucester on Friday night but first, Connacht will savour the sweet taste of winning in Europe after having their backs shoved against the wall.

It was a dogged victory sealed by replacement out-half Conor Fitzgerald’s composed penalty, after strong tries from the superb flanker Paul Boyle, battling hooker Tom McCartney and impressive scrum-half Caolin Blade had featured in a ding-dong battle against an imposingly large Montpellier team.

Friend would have been thrilled that Connacht often excelled in the areas where it had been predicted to struggle, with the likes of inside centre Tom Daly and the hard-working Robin Copeland offering dynamic ball-carrying off scrum-half Blade inside the Montpellier 22.

With Bundee Aki leading the way, Connacht’s defence was also aggressive in important moments, winning key breakdown turnovers that would have delighted defence coach Peter Wilkins.

Scrum-half Blade was man of the match with a typically influential performance, his sniping try capping off a complete showing that will surely have made new Ireland head coach Andy Farrell take notice.

With stand-in captain McCartney delivering a grizzly showing and every Connacht player fronting up, they managed to just about negate the Montpellier power enough to edge home even without key men like Tiernan O’Halloran, Quinn Roux, Gavin Thornbury, Kieran Marmion, and Tom Farrell.

There are tough tasks ahead, most immediately with Toulouse away next weekend, but Connacht are in the mix after this victorious return to top-tier European rugby.

aaron-cruden-scores-his-sides-first-try Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht’s nightmare start saw them concede the opening try after just 69 seconds, as Montpellier swept back at them off Carty’s chip kick out of the home team’s half. 

Cruden and centre Jan Serfontein shifted the ball wide to the left, where fullback Anthony Bouthier skipped outside Blade and released Yvan Reilhac up the left wing, where he drew in final defender Darragh Leader before passing back inside for Cruden to finish.

With captain Benoit Paillaugue converting, Montpellier were in dreamland away from home and Connacht initially came up short in their response.

First, Paul Boyle’s inside pass to Blade with the tryline begging was intercepted by Paillaugue, before Carty kicked a penalty dead as he searched for the left corner, then Copeland passed into touch with Godwin outside him.

Connacht suffered yet another injury in the ninth minute as lock Cillian Gallagher was forced off after a blow to the head, before Carty’s long pass wide to Godwin skidded into touch.

Connacht finally got off the mark when strong turnover penalty by Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney allowed Carty to slot a penalty.

Montpellier shifted to a 10-3 lead heading into the second after a linebreak from right wing Gabriel N’Gandebe resulted in Connacht’s Porch failing to release after the tackle, with Paillaugue on target. 

paul-boyle-celebrates-scoring-a-try Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

That was to be the French side’s final score of the first half, though, as Connacht began to get to grips with their visitors.

Centre Tom Daly missed an opportunity to send Blade over with an inside pass after some excellent interplay between himself and Aki. Friend’s side then looked fortunate to get a forward pass call against Bouthier with Montpellier about to score, that let-off sparking them into a final effort in the closing minutes of the half.

Paillaugue accidentally kicked the ball off loosehead prop Mikheil Nariashvili in front of him as he attempted to exit his 22, handing Connacht a midfield scrum. Impressively, they ground their way to a 38th-minute try as big carries from Daly and Blade preceded Boyle ducking under a poor tackle attempt from Paul Willemse to score. 

Carty missed the conversion but Connacht somehow found time for another score, as they won a scrum penalty and kicked down the right touchline. 

Their first lineout saw Fainga’a look to claim a clever low throw to the front, where he was upended by Willemse while he was jumping to gather the ball, referee Matt Carley showing the France international a yellow card.

And with the clock in the red, Connacht’s pack then surged over for a 45th-minute maul try finished by McCartney at the tail, though Carty’s second conversion miss meant they led only 13-10 at the break.

bundee-aki-celebrates-tom-mccartney-scoring-a-try Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Even with a numerical disadvantage, Montpellier managed to level the score before the end of the sin-bin period, with Paillaugue popping over a penalty after Blade was caught out offside. 

The Connacht scrum-half soon had a far bigger say in the game, though, as he finished off a muscular passage of possession in the Montpellier 22 after they opted to kick into the corner rather than take a shot at goal.

Daly was among the strong ball-carriers again before Carley indicated a penalty advantage and Blade sniped to the right of a midfield ruck, slipping through hooker Youri Delhommel’s tackle and emphatically dotting down.

Carty’s conversion meant Connacht were 20-13 to the good heading to the closing quarter of the tie, a massive turnover penalty from Aki inside the Connacht 22 helping them along the way.

The lead didn’t last too much longer beyond that, however, as Connacht knocked-on at the back of the lineout and then Montpellier’s power showed.

Serfontein ran right over the top of Carty off the scrum and then Bouthier – now at out-half – stepped inside Daly on the second phase, fended Fainga’a and scorched pass Porch for a try in the blink of an eye, converted by Paillaugue.

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caolin-blade-celebrates-his-try Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Friend responded by sending on 22-year-old Fitzgerald for Carty at out-half and he made an immediate impression, flinging a pass wide for Godwin to break down the left, leading to Caleb Timu going off his feet at a ruck. 

Fitzgerald nailed the penalty for a 23-20 lead with just 13 minutes remaining.

A big Denis Buckly turnover penalty relieved some of the pressure on Connacht as Montpellier thundered at them in search of a winner, before Copeland jackaled for another massive steal on the 16th phase of the next attack.


Montpellier kept coming but Connacht weren’t going to let this one slip.

Connacht scorers:

TriesPaul Boyle, Tom McCartney, Caolin Blade

ConversionsJack Carty [1 from 3]

Penalties: Jack Carty [1 from 1], Conor Fitzgerald [1 from 1]

Montpellier scorers:

TriesAaron Cruden, Anthony Bouthier

ConversionsBenoit Paillaugue [2 from 2]

Penalties: Benoit Paillaugue [2 from 2]

CONNACHT: Darragh Leader; John Porch, Kyle Godwin, Tom Daly, Kyle Godwin; Jack Carty (Conor Fitzgerald ’65), Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney (captain) (Dave Heffernan ’74), Dominic Robertson-McCoy (Conor Kenny ’74); Cillian Gallagher (Joe Maksymiw ’9 (Eoghan Masterson ’65)), Ultan Dillane; Paul Boyle, Colby Faing’a, Robin Copeland.

Replacements: Matthew Burke, Stephen Kerins, David Horwitz.

MONTPELLIER: Anthony Bouthier; Gabriel N’gandebe, Arthur Vincent, Jan Serfontein, Yvan Reilhac; Aaron Cruden (Henry Immelman ’57), Benoit Paillaugue (captain) (Enzo Sanga ); Mikheil Nariashvili (Grégory Fichten ’57), Youri Delhommel (Bismarck Du Plessis ’54), Mohamed Haouas (Jannie Du Plessis ’71); Nico Janse van Rensburg, Paul Willemse (yellow card ’40 (Jacques Du Plessis ’51)); Kelian Galletier (Julien Bardy ’57), Yacouba Camara (Fulgence Ouedraogo ’74), Caleb Timu.

Referee: Matthew Carley [England]. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from the Sportsground

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