Clinical Connacht bag bonus point-win to maintain push for top four

Connacht 33 Dragons 12

Connacht's Darragh Leader scored a try against Dragons in action from the Guinness PRO14 game at the Sportsground, Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht's Darragh Leader scored a try against Dragons in action from the Guinness PRO14 game at the Sportsground, Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Andy Friend, after this first 10 weeks as the new Connacht coach, believes his squad is capable of being a Champions Cup rugby team.

The weekend's 33-12 win over the Dragons at the Sportsground ensured Connacht remain in the hunt for a top four place in Conference A. While Glasgow continue to prove their pedigree with just two defeats to lead the pool with 32 points, only a point separates Munster (24 ), Ospreys (23 ),Cardiff (22 ) and Connacht (21 ).

Connacht, however, will still rue that 22-17 loss away to an understrength Ospreys, given that a win would have left them level pegging with Munster after the opening block of eight games.

"We are nowhere near being a Champions Cup team yet, let me tell you," says Friend, "but we have to keep growing. And if we do, and we keep learning from each other and pushing each other to new levels and new limits, there is no reason why we can't be."

After that disappointing performance against Ospreys, Connacht knew they needed to perform against a struggling Dragons team desperate for a win. And they delivered with a clinical first-half performance to ensure victory, while also giving starts to Cian De Buitlear, Darragh Leader, and new Aussie signing David Horwitz. A feature of Friend's first 10 weeks has been his selection of youngsters when the opportunities have arisen.

"At the end of the day we are in a performance sport and you have to perform. What people see is 80 minutes of a performance, what we see throughout the whole week is a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday performance, and it that is not good enough. We know the 80 minutes is not going to be good enough, so players who haven't been performing in those Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday moments, they haven't had their chances.

"What I like is that we talk about it and are very up front with them and we are getting a response from that.

"All we can ever be as a group is be honest with each other and tell it how it is, and it's up to us to work with the players, and for them to respond to that and on the whole we are doing that."

Connacht have continued to try to play the heads-up rugby from last season, but Friend believes it requires a bigger commitment from the players both on and off the field.

"When we play our style of rugby and when we stick to our systems in attack and defense, we can match it with any team. We have to believe in that, and sometimes, if a player doesn't prepare properly, and is not mentally right, the system is not going to work.

"That is what we learned from the Ospreys. But on the whole when we have stuck to it, and believed in what we are doing, and worked as a unit, we have got results. So the message to the players is we can match it with any team as long as we keep doing the small things and get ourselves to the starting line in the right physical and mental state."

That message was delivered in a frank meeting prior to last Saturday's fixture against Dragons, and it ensured Connacht secured a valuable bonus point win to keep the pressure on the top four in the Pro 14 Conference A.

With seven changes to the side that disappointed against the Ospreys last week, Connacht were more energised and hungry, and it was reflected in their 26-0 lead at half time.

"You have to take opportunities, and tonight we did," said Friend on Saturday night. "Between the 24th and 29th minutes the game opened up and we were pleased with the opportunities we created.

"Tonight was crucial and I am really pleased with the way we rallied after losing last week and made sure we didn't make the same mistakes. We created opportunities because we were working hard."

After dominating the opening 20 minutes, Connacht finally broke the deadlock with the first of four tries before the interval. Lock James Cannon claimed the honours from a line-out and drive 10 metres from the line, and outhalf David Horwtiz, in his first start for Connacht, perfectly judged his conversion into the wind.

Prodigious kicking paved the way for the second four minutes later - man of the match Sean O'Brien putting boot to loose ball before Tom Farrell's punt down the touchline, which was finished by right wing Darragh Leader, also in his first start of the season.

The home side played with an intensity lacking in last weekend's loss to Ospreys, none more so than centre Tom Farrell and and left wing Colm de Buitler, whose determined chase back in defence provided the platform for the third try. It was end to end with Horwitz making the break before a supporting Farrell supplied Fainga'a who raced in from the 10m line for the third try.

Minutes later a dominant scrum provided the platform for the bonus point try and from a series of close-in drives hooker Tom McCarthy dived over, with Horwitz adding the extras for a 26-0 lead.

Although Connacht started the second half where they left off, they were denied a try by TMO, and with all replacements making an appearance, including a 100th cap for Galway's Eoin Griffin, the momentum dissipated. The visitors capitalised on a rare penalty before centre Jarrad Sage combined with replacement lock James Thomas who carved a gap for Hallam Amos to score a first Dragons's try.

The home side's superior scrum was once again influential in their final try, putting Connacht the front foot. And from a sweeping backline left-to-right move, Farrell touched down with replacement Jack Carty converting.

Although No 8 Taine Basham scored a try at the death, it was of little consequence to an under-pressure Bernard Jackman and a struggling Dragons looking for their first away win this season.

Connacht, with four wins from eight and three losing bonus points, take a break for the next 10 days before returning to training in preparation of their visit to South Africa, where they play the Southern Kings on November 25 and Toyota Cheetahs on December 1.

"I am really happy with squad we have got. We have a tremendous amount of talent, but we have to continue to work on the no talent required stuff - the stuff you do away from the park - which allows you to get on the field in the best shape you can be in. We missed it last week against Ospreys; we got it right against Dragons."

Connacht: T O'Halloran, D Leader, K Godwin, T Farrell, C De Buitlear, D Horwitz, K Marmion, D Buckley, T McCartney, C Carey, U Dillane, J Cannon, S O'Brien, C Fainga'a, J Butler (cpt ).

Replacements, C O'Donnell for Carey (19 C Blade for Marmion (47 ), Shane Delahunt for McCartney (50 ), J Carty for Horwitz (57 ), J Marksymiw for Cannon, E Griffin for Leader, M Burke for Buckley (both 65 ), J Connolly Butler (71 ).

Dragons: J Williams, D Howells, H Amos, J Sage, W Talbot Davies, J Tovey, R Williams, B Harris, R Hibbard (cpt ), L Fairbrother, J Davies, L Evans, H Keddie, N Cudd, T Brasham.

Replacements, A Warren for Howells and J Thomas for Davies (HT ), T Knoyle for R Willliams (55m ), H Taylor for Keddie and A Jarvis Harris (both 65 ), R Lawrence for Hibbard (71 ), J Davies for J Williams (75 ).

Referee: Q Immelman (South Africa ).


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