Changes ahead for Connacht as season ends on a high note

Connacht coaches Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy bid farewell to the Sportsground after a long association with the province as both players and coaches. 
Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht coaches Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy bid farewell to the Sportsground after a long association with the province as both players and coaches. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht, in producing a 26-19 bonus-point home victory, showcased the best of attack and defence in each half for a positive end to their season.

The victory had no bearing for Connacht's season, but it was an important result for Andy Friend's men after a disappointing home record. More importantly, it was the appropriate result for two long-serving Connacht men, backs coach Nigel Carolan and forwards coach Jimmy Duffy, in addition to the nine players who now are departing the Sportsground.

Among those are Irish international Quinn Roux, whose leadership contribution to the province on the field, has been immense; fullback Stephen Fitzgerald whose promising career has been cut short through injury; and Paddy McAllister, who is retiring, having continued to help drive Connacht's youngsters, particularly during the Covid crisis.

Younger playing members include Sean O'Brien, who is headed to Exeter, Conor Dean, Colm de Buitlear, Cillian Gallagher, Conor Kenny, and Stephen Kerins, who has signed for Ealing Trailfinders.

Coming in for next season are Irish qualified centre Shayne Bolton from the Cheetahs (to be officially announced ), lock Leva Fifita (Grenoble ), wing/fullback Mac Hansen (Brumbies ), while a new loosehead prop is likely. In addition academy players Dylan Tierney Martin, Oran McNulty and Cian Prendergast have signed pro contracts.

The new coaching set-up includes forward coach South African Dewald Senekal from Stade Francais, former Connacht Eagles coach Mossy Lawler as assistant attack and skills coach, former and elite player development officer Colm Tucker as defence and forwards technical skills coach. Current defence coach Pete Wilkins becomes senior coach with responsibility for attack.

It will be a much-changed coaching set-up as Friend enters his fourth season at the helm. And understandably he was delighted to finish with a win after an erratic season of results - most victories being recorded away from home.

"It was not perfect," said coach Andy Friend, "but to beat an Ospreys' side still fighting to get into the final just shows the spirit within this group."

The Ospreys subsequently were forced to pull out of their final fixture with Benetton due to Covid cases in Wales with Benetton finishing top of the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup to take their place in the final against their South African counterparts.

The final fixture epitomised all that was good about Connacht's attacking and defensive prowess - an opening half in which four tries were scored, complemented by a huge defensive effort in the second 40 minutes to see off their Welsh opponents.

However, both sides contributed to an exciting, end-to-end game fitting for a finale, but it was Connacht who dominated with a strong opening, bagging the try bonus point by the 32nd minute. The first try arrived within nine minutes when man of the match Caolin Blade set up hooker Shane Delahunt to mark his 100th cap with the touchdown, and Jack Carty converted the sideline kick.

Within five minutes, Ospreys' openside Morgan Morris opened the visitors' score, capitalising on a penalty to touch and drive. However, Connacht bagged try number two after Ben O'Donnell secured the restart, and once again scrumhalf Blade was influential with a perfectly timed kick-through for Connacht's new Lion Bundee Aki to claim the touchdown.

The third arrived four minutes later. The pack made the hard yards through Eoghan Masterson and Cian Prendergast before Ultan Dillane broke through, and Carty added this third conversion for a 14-5 lead.

The Welsh visitors, however, reaped the reward for their muscle up front with a Sam Parry try, but at the other end a sublime chase and pass from Carty provided left wing Peter O'Sullivan with Connacht's fourth try.

When Andy Friend's side lost Dominic Robertson-McCoy to the bin, Parry added his second try, converted by Myler, narrowing the gap at half-time to 29-19. The Welsh outfit, with a superb line-out, took control after the break, and were helped by Connacht's concession of a series of penalties. However the home side's aggressive and spirited defence kept the visitors scoreless going into the final 10 minutes. It took a huge Sullivan tackle and turnover by Kieran Marmion to provide some relief for Connacht with seven minutes remaining, and then another big turnover from Sam Arnold to secure a merited victory at home to end a solid season.

Yellow cards: Osprey, R Webb 7m; Connacht, D Robertson McCoy 40m.

Connacht: A Wootton, P Sullivan, B Aki, T Daly, B O’Donnell, J Carty; C Blade, J Duggan, S Delahunt, D Robertson-McCoy, N Murray, U Dillane, C Prendergast, JButler ©, E Masterson.Replacements: J Aungier for Butler (40 ); M Burke for Duggan (HT ); J Butler for Aungier (48 ), J Aungier for Robertson McCoy, S Masterson for E Masterson, and O Dowling for Murray (58 ), K Marmion for Blade, J Murphy for Delahunt S Arnold for Daly (68m ).

Ospreys: D Evans, D Cross, T Thomas-Wheeler, J Hawkins, L Morgan, S Myler, R Webb (C ), N Smith, S Parry, T Botha, A Beard, B Davies, W Griffiths, M Morris, E RootsReplacements: I Phillips G Thomas for Smith and M Fia for Botha (46 ), G Thomas for Smith and T Davies for B Davis (55, ) I Phillips, S Cross for E Roots, R Morgan-Williams for Webb, L Price for Myler and Nagy for Morgan (all 69 ).

Referee: Mike Adamson (SFU ).

 

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