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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 28 May, 2020

Connacht weather the Galway storm to get European campaign back on track

Andy Friend’s side managed the conditions brilliantly to grind out an important Challenge Cup win over Perpignan.

Connacht 22

Perpignan 10

Ryan Bailey reports from the Sportsground 

ONE OF THOSE days when you’re just happy to take the points and move on, as Connacht weathered a ferocious Atlantic storm and held off the challenge of Perpignan to inject further momentum into their season.

A fourth straight win for Andy Friend’s side sees the western province move back into contention in Pool 3 of the Challenge Cup, and allows them to harbour genuine aspirations of courting success on two fronts this term.

Bundee Aki scores a try and is congratulated by James Connolly and David Heffernan Connacht celebrate Aki's try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This was a hard-earned win in every sense of the word as the miserable Galway conditions made it a dogfight from start to finish, but Connacht managed the game expertly to establish a commanding lead and hold onto it thereafter.

First-half tries from Darragh Leader and Bundee Aki laid the platform and while a much-changed Perpignan weren’t prepared to shirk away from the challenge, Kyle Godwin’s late score sealed the points for the hosts.

The forwards worked tirelessly in the trenches and while handling errors were par for the course in driving wind and rain, they dominated at the set-piece and showed a clinical edge when within striking distance to get the job done.

Returning internationals Finlay Bealham, Aki and Quinn Roux were all to the fore, with the latter named man of the match for a big shift in the engine room, while the likes of Dave Heffernan, Peter McCabe and Joe Maksymiw all had telling impacts around the park.

Four match points moves Connacht within two of Pool 3 pacesetters Sale, but a December back-to-back over Perpignan is eminently possible now for Friend’s charges, who are building an encouraging head of steam at this defining juncture of the campaign.

Most impressive here was the province’s ability to see out the game in the second period, as they kept it tight and took the sting out of any French riposte, although the visitors briefly threatened to make it an uncomfortable endgame, only for Connacht to finish strongly through Godwin’s classy finish. 

The province lead from start to finish, and were well worth the win.  

Making use of the strong gale at their backs in the first period, Connacht pitched tent inside Perpignan territory for large tracts of the opening exchanges, testing the early resilience of the French visitors.

While David Horwitz skewed a penalty attempt from just inside the opposition half left and off the post, it wasn’t long before the hosts made the breakthrough, as Perpignan struggled to ease the pressure on their own line.

Horwitz’s clever grubber down the line gave Connacht prime attacking position on the far side, penning Perpignan further back, and when the forwards exerted dominance at the set-piece, space opened up for Leader — who arrived from deep — to crash over from close-range after latching onto a pop pass.

Perpignan had earlier decided to halt their pre-game warm-up to return to the inner sanctuary of the dressing room during a biting rain shower, but there was no hiding place when the heavens opened again.

Connacht celebrate a penalty Conditions were miserable in Galway. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Even by Galway standards, the downpour — which blew from one end of the ground to the other — was of biblical proportions, rendering even the simplest of tasks nigh-on impossible for both sets of players. 

When the rain did eventually relent, Connacht regained their composure to extend their scoreboard advantage, after James Mitchell’s clearing kick from his own line pressed Perpignan into defensive mode.

Failing to complete their exit again, this time debutant Kieran Joyce applying pressure on Enzo Selponi to block down the attempted clearing kick, Connacht gained yards at the resulting set-piece, allowing Aki put the head down for his third try of the campaign.

It looked ominous for Perpignan’s second-string at this juncture, but to their credit, the Top 14 outfit battled valiantly for the remainder of the half, forcing Connacht to get through some big defensive sets, with Bealham making a crucial turnover five metres from the home line and then Cian Kelleher grasped a dangerous cross-field kick after sustained French pressure.

At the other end, Connacht conjured one final salvo of the half, boosted by the sin-binning of Perpignan second row Yoann Vivalda, but were repelled in the striking zone after the forwards had probed for a third try around the fringes.

The first score after the restart was going to be crucial and the western province continued in a similar vein, showing excellent handling in the tight exchanges to eek their way up field, before winning a penalty in front of the posts, allowing Horwitz extend the lead from the tee.

Conditions made it an energy-draining and physically-demanding contest, with any lapse in concentration punished, and while Perpignan got on the board after Connacht were penalised on the ground on the 10-metre line, Friend’s side looked to retain possession and take the sting out of the game. 

Using their tight five as the heavy artillery, Connacht combined direct running with subtle and sharp changes of attacking angles out the back, with Aki and Matt Healy typically dangerous in possession.  

Matt Healy with Jonathan Bousquet Matt Healy tackled by Perpignan captain Bousquet. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

But Perpignan were not here to roll over, and threatened to mount a late comeback after reducing the deficit through replacement hooker Manu Leiataua, after Friend had unloaded his bench. 

Jonathan Bousquet’s touchline conversion made it a 10-point game entering the final quarter, and with the wind and momentum at their backs, the French side were beginning to turn the screw, much to the unease of the Clan Terrace.

There is a steely backbone to this Connacht side, however, and even with their backs against the wall, rallied to end the game as a contest and seal an important victory through Godwin after Leiataua had been sent to the bin for objecting to the referee’s call. 

Forcing the turnover, the forwards went through the phases under the posts and Godwin then used his fresh legs and power to get around the outside edge and touch down, much to the relief of the 5,011 who braved the elements. 

They head home happy, at least, and although Connacht were unable to add a late bonus point, this was another very satisfactory afternoon’s work which augurs well for the big games to come. 

Connacht scorers:

Tries: Darragh Leader, Bundee Aki, Kyle Godwin.  
Conversions: David Horwitz [2 from 2], Conor Fitzgerald [0 from 1].
Penalties: David Horwitz [1 from 2].

Perpignan scorers:

Tries: Manu Leiataua.
Conversions: Jonathan Bousquet [1 from 1].
Penalties: Jonathan Bousquet [1 from 1].

CONNACHT: 15. Darragh Leader, 14. Cian Kelleher, 13. Kieran Joyce, 12. Bundee Aki (Kyle Godwin 67′), 11. Matt Healy, 10. David Horwitz (Conor Fitzgerald 58′), 9. James Mitchell (Caolin Blade 70′); 1. Peter McCabe, 2. Dave Heffernan (captain), 3. Finlay Bealham (Dominic Robertson McCoy 60′), 4. Joe Maksymiw (Gavin Thornbury 60′), 5. Quinn Roux, 6. Eoghan Masterson (Paul Boyle 68′), 7. Colby Fainga’a, 8. James Connolly. 

PERPIGNAN: 15. Jonathan Bousquet (captain), 14. Tima Fainga’anuku, 13. Pierre Lucas (Afusipa Taumoepeau 56′), 12. Paul Marty (Julien Farnoux 62′), 11. Eroni Sau, 10. Enzo Selponi, 9. Sadek Degmache; 1. Quentin Walcker (Kevin Tougne 56′), 2. Raphael Carbou (Manu Leiataua 41′), 3. Nicolas Lemaire (Sylvain Charlet 60′), 4. Yoann Vivalda, 5. Berend Botha (Alban Roussel 56′), 6. Johan Van Heerden, 7. Pierre Reynaud, 8. Michael Faleafa (Edoardo Iachizzi 60′). 

Attendance: 5,011.

Referee: Karl Dickson [RFU]. 

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Ryan Bailey

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