Connacht back in Champions Cup

Connacht flanker Paul Boyle in action from the Guinness PRO14 game against Cardiff Blues at the Sportsground, Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht flanker Paul Boyle in action from the Guinness PRO14 game against Cardiff Blues at the Sportsground, Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Champions Cup secured, it would be easy for Connacht Rugby to drift towards the end of the season, knowing their primary aim is secured.

However, having overcome Cardiff by 29-22 at a packed Sportsground on Saturday, and celebrated at Connacht's annual awards the same evening, Connacht must now seize the momentum, the occasion, and push themselves on to ensure they complete a meaningful season - to be matched with the new stadium development off-the-field

And that will be a challenge for a group of players whose major focus has been securing Champions Cup rugby for the last three seasons. It will be another test to go to Munster, knowing they do not need to win, and produce a performance - an opportunity certainly for replacement players if front-liners need to be rested. But the big one is returning to Kingspan Stadium in Belfast for the PRO14 quarter final having overcome 58 years of defeats earlier this season and then following up with a victory at home. This time round, however, it is altogether a different test at the business end of the season that will test Connacht's mental and physical resolve.

Three years since that PRO12 final, and only the second time Connacht have reached the top European competition on merit, it is new territory for much of this squad. But coach Andy Friend believes his players have more in them.

“This is not the ceiling," he says. "We’ve got some more growth in us, we’ve got some really good depth coming through, academy players coming through, and a strong academy, and we’ll just keep building those boys through. There’s some good work going on here.

“We said at the start of the season we want to win it," said Andy Friend. "We’ll have a quarter-final against Ulster, but before that we’ve got to go to Munster and we’ve got to play a game there.

"People will say the result doesn’t matter, but it does, because sport is about momentum too. So we want to keep winning, which we will aim to do, and so will they. They will probably be aiming for a top spot now, so that will be a huge game down there in Thomond Park and then Ulster in a quarter-final, which is pretty exciting.”

Crowning try from Carty

It was more tense than exciting in the Galway Sportsground on Saturday afternoon when Cardiff won the toss and forced Connacht to play with a stiff breeze that continued to shift throughout the game. And it looked like a 14-7 half-time lead may not be enough, but Connacht produced an outstanding second half with ball in hand, crowned by Jack Carty's superb try.

Connacht had opened the scoring after 11 minutes, capitalising on their first sustained attack with a penalty to touch some 25 metres out. Paul Boyle's break from the breakdown carved the gap for the supporting Caolan Blade to score, with Carty adding the extras. Eight minutes later Cardiff made their superior possession count, replying with a try from right wing Owen Lane before Connacht completed the first half tally with a textbook line-out and drive, Boyle catching and Gavin Thornbury touching down. Carty added the touchline conversion.

With less territory and possession than their opponents, Connacht turned into the second-half wind and took control. Reminiscent of their PRO12 winning season, they kept hold of the ball and ran with it. Matt Healy, once again revelled in tight spaces on the left wing, Bundee Aki resumed his trademark tackling to set the Sportsground alight, Tiernan O'Halloran and Darragh Leader were secure at the back, while Carty and Caolan Blade continued to exercise control. Allied to the pack that never relented in the set piece, Connacht had all the momentum, particularly after Carty added a three-pointer to extend the lead to 17-7 and five minutes later produced the try of the game.

It came after Darragh Leader took a quick throw from a low bouncing touchfinder from Gareth Anscombe. A willing Tiernan O'Halloran set up play inside his 22. Tom Farrell, Blade and Carty were all involved in several phases before Aki made inroads and Leader took it on again. Captain Jarrad Butler and Thornbury entered the action as play continued to move forward, and Denis Buckley was on hand to help Carty before Farrell, O'Halloran and Healy kept Cardiff on the back foot. Eventually from a ruck, Buckley again provided the Connacht outhalf, who finding a half gap, opted to chip through inside the 22. Despite the covering Cardiff players, he had the pace to burst onto the bouncing ball and ride Matthew Morgan's tackle as he scored. Adding the extras, Carty put Connacht into a 24-7 lead after 50 minutes.

Cardiff’s wrath

As expected Cardiff responded. An Anscombe penalty two minutes later signalled a Cardiff revival, but they were denied a try by TMO - a controversial decision for a "simultaneous hand in touch and ball grounded" that kept the Welsh out of reach. And for the next 15 minutes Connacht's defence was forced to withstand Cardiff's wrath until openside Ollie Robinson touched down from a maul and Anscombe narrowed the gap to 24-17.

With eight minutes remaining, Connacht scored the fourth. Robin Copeland produced the necessary cameo appearance, disrupting the restart, and when Cardiff simply failed to control, Colby Faianga'a got his boot to ball and Healy was quickest to react, diving over in the corner.

There was enough time for Jason Harries to claim a consolation try, but by then the Clan Terrace was well into its fourth round of the 'Fields of Athenry'.

“From the response of the crowd that means a hell of a lot," said Friend. "We’ve had great support this year, I’ve had great support this year, good people, good behind the scenes staff, we had good coaches and we’ve got great players, so I think it’s just reward for the work that has gone in, and it’s the start.

"At the end of the day it comes down to the players. The players have got to go out there and play, and I just sit back and applaud them for the work they’ve put in, and for the way they’ve backed themselves in playing the football they know they can play.

“I think also that this is not the ceiling either, and that’s the important thing. We’ve got some more growth in us, we’ve got some really good depth coming through, academy players coming through, and a strong academy, and we’ll just keep building those boys through. There’s some good work going on here.”

Connacht: T O’Halloran; D Leader, T Farrell, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy, U Dillane, G Thornbury; P Boyle, C Fainga’a, J Butler (c ). Subs: C Carey for Robertson-McCoy (45 ), C Kelleher for Leader (50 ), K Marmion for Blade (59 ), Blade for Marmion (62 ), S Delahunt for Heffernan and R Copeland for Butler (both 65 ), M Burke for Buckley (71 ), J Cannon for Thornbury (75 ), T Daly for O'Halloran (78 ).

Cardiff: M Morgan; O Lane, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, J Harries; G Anscombe (c ), T Williams; R Gill, E Lewis, D Lewis; G Earle, R Thornton; J Turnbull, O Robinson, S Davies. Subs: L Belcher, R Carre, D Arhip, S Lewis-Hughes, J Botham, L Williams, J Evans, G Smith.

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