It is a win that may mean different things to different people, but for the collective Connacht Rugby, it will go down in history.
As a first Heineken Cup win in their debut season, it deserves considerable merit, but it is much more. “If you're going through hell, keep going,” said Winston Churchill, and that is exactly what Connacht did. Through 14 defeats - some unlucky and some deserved - Connacht maintained their “we believe in what we are doing” mantra. Hit by injuries which robbed Connacht of some key players throughout the tournament, and operating on a considerably smaller budget (compare their €3 million with Toulouse’s €33), Connacht coach Eric Elwood has continually swept aside excuses and maintained an unshakeable belief in his players week-in, week-out. On Saturday night they justified his loyalty and those of the 5040 supporters who had remained faithful during a tortuous 14 weeks, rising to the occasion in this final Heineken Cup pool 6 fixture.
It was a thrilling evening. The English premiership leaders Harlequins travelled to the dreaded and much maligned Galway Sportsground on a wet and windy night looking for the four points and possibly the bonus to qualify for the quarter-finals. They came away chastened. Connacht, led by captain Gavin Duffy, once again produced a performance of guts and bravery - the traditional hallmark of many Connacht victories in the past. They stuck to the game plan, remained disciplined to the end despite being under the cosh for the entire second half, frustrated their opponents, and “won ugly”.
What will be incredibly pleasing for Elwood, Dan McFarland, Billy Millard and, in particular defence coach Mike Forshaw, was the way the defence held together, limiting Quins’ much-vaunted attack. Throughout the season, Connacht have conceded just one four-try bonus point (Toulouse the previous week), and Saturday evening’s fixture was testament to his work with the squad. The statistics reveal an astonishing 110 tackles by the pack and 235 defensive “plays”, but it was not just about numbers, but the sheer ferocity and commitment behind each of those tackles, epitomised by Man of the Match John Muldoon, and his backrow colleagues Ray Ofisa, George Naoupu, and the irrepressible pairing of Michael Swift and Mike McCarthy. Add in the consistency of Brett Wilkinson, Adrian Flavin, and Ronan Loughney, starting in his first match since injuring his shoulder, and Connacht’s pack was immense.
Connacht will also acknowledge the efforts of Niall O’Connor at outhalf - a position with which Connacht has struggled since Ian Keatley’s departure to Munster. O’Connor gave Connacht the perfect fillip when his first penalty effort sailed through the uprights after four minutes. And although he missed what many will consider the easiest from the 22, he added another two before the break for Connacht’s nine winning points. The former All Black Nick Evans, having potted a 60th minute effort in the second half to come within a point, also missed the chance to put Quins in front some seven minutes later.
Harlequins had won the toss and opted to face into the elements in the first half and O'Connor used it to his advantage when posting a fourth minute penalty from the 10m line after Quins were penalised at the scrum. Within minutes, however, Quins started punching holes through their back row forwards, aided and abetted by lively scrumhalf Danny Care. From a penalty to touch, Quins found no way through their pack, but they seized the opportunity when the ball was sent wide. Nick Evans, on the loop, sent a skip pass to left wing Sam Smith who, despite Fetu Vainikolo’s diving tackle, did well to touch down in the corner for the only try of the game.
When Connacht won a second penalty at scrum time, O'Connor struck his effort perfectly to post another three points for the home side. Two minutes later some bulldozing tackles had Quins on the back foot again, and Connacht forced a penalty from an ensuing ruck when Quins were off-side. The Connacht outhalf struck a third kick to edge Connacht in front by 9 - 5.
However Quins took over, and helped by some indiscipline in the Connacht ranks, four penalties ensured the visitors grabbed a foothold. However they failed to capitalise in the face of Connacht’s unrelenting pressure in defence, while some sterling work by scrumhalf Paul Donoghue, with some neat chip kicks out of defence, helped the home side re-establish territory before O'Connor missed a penalty just before the break.
No one could have scripted the second half, particularly within the first five minutes when Connacht' scrum was put under immense pressure. However Quins continued to spurn kickable penalties in search of a killer try, until Evans finally posted a 60th minute effort to come within one point. That was as good as it got for the visitors. Evans missed a penalty and Ugo Moyne knocked on with the line at his mercy. Thereafter the story was one of staunch Connacht defence and unprecedented celebrations.
Connacht had sought respect in this first Heineken Cup season. With necessary changes to the Sportsground off the field, an increasing vocal and solid support, and some exceptional performances which finally reaped their reward, they have achieved their goal. Now it must continue.
Connacht: G Duffy [capt]; F Vainikolo, K Tonetti, H Fa'afili, T O'Halloran; N O'Connor, P O'Donohoe; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney, M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacements: E Reynecke for Flavin (58m), D Buckley for Wilkinson (60m), D Rogers for Loughney (67m).
Harlequins: M Brown; U Monye, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, C Brooker, J Johnston, T Vallejos, G Robson, M Faasavalu, C Robshaw [capt], N Easter. Replacements: L Wallace for Fa'asavalu (42m),O Kohn for Cinalli (49m)m J Gray for Brooker (63m), M Lambert for Marler (74m).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).