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Connacht dig in to give Racing 92 one hell of a fright

The French giants seemed to be cruising for a bonus point win, but tries from Matt Healy, Alex Wootton and Conor Oliver gave Connacht a hard-won losing bonus.

Racing 92:  26

Connacht: 22

THEY JUST NEVER let themselves get counted out.

Connacht, over-matched against a star-studded Racing, gritted their teeth, dug in their claws and somehow turned a one-sided home canter to a bonus point into an invaluable losing bonus point of their own.

For long stretches of the contest it seemed as though the Western province’s efforts were in vain as the big bodies in ciel et blue routinely batted them back.

However, led by a relentless Ultan Dillane and the tenacious Paul Boyle, tries from Matt Healy, Alex Wootton and Conor Oliver brought Connacht within a score of their illustrious opponents.

And having been 26-8 down midway through the second half, it was Connacht who were pushing for victory with late pressure until Wayne Barnes’ game-ending penalty painted relief all over last season’s European finalists.

Up against one of the most exciting back-lines assembled in European rugby, Connacht did not approach the contest with much trepidation.

A tidy set of phases that featured a superb John Porch aerial take and a clever Jack Carty chip pinned Racing into their 22. But the European champions exited with one penalty, set up in Connacht’s 22 with another and let their bulky forwards make inroads through the maul. They made short work of the scoring chance, Georges Henri Colombe crashing over the line and Maxime Machenaud, on while Teddy Iribaren did his HIA, slotted the conversion.

Carty closed the gap with a well-struck penalty, but the Top14 side are vicious when it comes to punishing errors and two from Carty compounded to create the opening for a brilliant second Racing score.

The out-half over-cooked a kick for touch and sent it out on the full, the lights in the La Defense Arena may have deceived him when he attempted to field a high kick return. Racing regathered the loose ball and the devastating running threat of Virimi Vakatawa rolled the attempted tackle of Healy, raided the right wing and invited Kurtley Beale to canter in a finish.

Beale was the catalyst for the game’s first jaw-dropping finish on 24 minutes; taking a Finn Russell skip pass, delaying a pass, tempting tacklers before offering up an offload from the deck before Taofifenua scorched up the left and produced a leaping, twisting finish despite a thumping hit on his legs from Sam Arnold.

19-3 down having not done a whole pile wrong, Connacht had to do a whole lot right to narrow that gap to 19-8 by half-time. With Butler lost to a head injury, Boyle led by example in contact. Tom Daly made an incisive break in the minutes before the interval  and Jimmy Duffy’s pack sought out hard yards in the right corner before Carty’s touch of magic.

The out-half sent a pin-point cross-field kick the way of Healy and the wing produced a magnificent leap to ‘posterize’ Teddy Thomas, take the ball in and score on landing.

Though ground was made on the scoreboard, each big impact felt like a dent Connacht wouldn’t be able to smooth out.  And when Friend sent his biggest-hitter, Bundee Aki, into the fray, the Ireland international was just in time to Dominic Bird celebrate a bonus-point try as the hosts took a 26-8 lead.

Russell and Beale threatened to pull the strings effortlessly, a little more intensity in their application might have scuppered the Westerners’ comeback.

Instead, Connacht defensive resolve and downright refusal to say die was rewarded when Wootton snatched a slow pass from Chavancy to race all the way from his own try-line to the opposition posts.

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Pre-match, Friend asked his side to put some of their own ‘might’ on display in the face of an awesome French outfit and when Oliver forced his way over the line even a few pessimists had to think they just might pull off the shock of the tournament on its opening weekend.

They pushed, they always push for more, but a late penalty the way of the hosts left Connacht with an immensely commendable losing bonus point.

They will relish the chance to show off more of their mettle when Pat Lam’s Bristol go to Galway next weekend.

Scorers

Racing 92

Tries: GH Colombe, K Beale, D Taofifenua, D Bird

Conversions: M Machenaud (1/1), T Iribaren (2/3)

Connacht:

Tries: M Healy, A Wootton, C Oliver

Conversions: J Carty (0/1), T Daly (2/2)

Penalties: J Carty (1/1)

Racing 92: Kurtley Beale,  Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa,  Henry Chavancy,  Donovan Taofifenua, Finn Russell, Teddy Iribaren  (Maxime Machenaud ’3 HIA, reversed ’13, permanent ’59)

Eddy Ben Arous (Guram Gogichashvili ’50),  Camille Chat (Kevin Le Guen ’18),  Georges Henri Colombe (Cedat Gomes Sa ’50),  Bernard Le Roux (Donnacha Ryan ’67),  Dominic Bird,  Wenceslas Lauret (Ibrahim Diallo ’59),  Baptiste Chouzenoux, Fabien Sanconnie

Connacht:  John Porch (Tiernan O’Halloran ’76),  Alex Wootton,  Sammy Arnold (Bundee Aki ’50),  Tom Daly,  Matt Healy,  Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion (Caolin Blade ’50).

Denis Buckley (Jordan Duggan ’62),  Dave Heffernan (Shane Delahunt ’64), Finlay Bealham (Jack Aungier ’50), Eoghan Masterson, Ultan Dillane,  Sean Masterson (Cian Prendergast ’35), Jarrad Butler (Conor Oliver ’13), Paul Boyle

 Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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