Connacht make the trip to Paris this weekend intent on securing pool qualification for the next round in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Having already overcome Stade Francais at home, the portents are good, but coach Andy Friend will not be taking anything for granted in his bid to become the first team from Connacht to qualify from the initial group stages.
This will be Conancht’s first meeting in France with Stade, and one positive is the numbers of Connacht fans who will be travelling to the French capital.
Connacht will head there knowing they let a 18-point lead slip and failing to halt a late steal from the Leicester Tigers was a “punch in the guts”. But in a season of continuing growth and maturity, Connacht must now embrace this week's opportunity to achieve their stated ambition.
“That will knock us,” Connacht coach Andy Friend admitted after Sunday’s 28-29 defeat. “Not a dent of confidence, but a punch in the guts. It was ours for the taking and we didn’t take it. We will have to wear that, but it doesn’t break us, it makes us stronger.”
Although Friend “cannot think of a more disappointing” loss, Connacht will be looking at replays of those final minutes when they failed to close out the game, and opted for a kicking duel that played into the Tigers’ hands. Despite the best attempts of Paul Boyle, who looked to have won a turnover at the breakdown, Dan Kelly supplied a long looping pass for replacement wing Hosea Saumaki who had the power and pace to play through John Porch’s last-ditch tackle to score the fifth and Tigers’ winning try.
“Oh so close, but not the win,” says Friend. “You must pay compliments to Leicester, they never give up; they kept coming. We made too many errors and stopped playing, trying to protect the lead. We talked it - the reason we got the lead was because we played the brand of footie we’d been training all year. In that respect, it is a tough one to take.
“When we go back and look at some of the decisions we made, we’ll probably kick ourselves - a couple of simple errors, a not straight in the line-out, ball stripped - that shouldn’t be happening - some decisions made, kicking the ball when we should have been running the ball. Definitely things we controlled. But compliments to Leicester - it is the reason they have lost one game all year and that’s because they are very hard to knock down.”
Statistics reveal Connacht are in the tournament’s top three for tries scored (12 ), points (87 ) and conversions (32 ), carries (305 ), clean breaks, and even top for line-outs won. But in this fixture it was Steve Borthwick’s side that edged it. Traditionally forward dominated, on this occasion they also added considerable attacking flare - with 54 per cent possession, 24 defenders beaten compared with Connacht’s six, and tellingly some 588 carry metres compared with Connacht’s 426. And as expected Jasper Wiese, Tommy Reffell and Ellis Genge led the Tigers’ forward charge, while left wing Kini Murimurivalu ran a whopping 162 metres with ball in hand, backed by Wiese with 109.
Two penalties in the opening minutes had provided the Tigers with their opening score, and it was prop Joe Heyes who crashed over from a driving maul in typical Leicester fashion. Although outhalf Freddie Burns was wide with the touchline kick, it set the tone for the opening quarter as Connacht struggled to get their hands on the ball. By the 10th minute the Tigers had crossed again - capitalising on a back-peddling scrum before Burns produced the perfect cross-field kick, and there was no stopping Murimurivalu.
Connacht, however, started to find their rhythm with tackle maestro Conor Oliver instigating the home side’s first attack. The forwards did all the hard work before Jack Carty sent the ball wide through Matt Healy and Tiernan O’Halloran, the fullback dotting down with Carty adding the extras. With their tails up, Connacht dominated possession, and from a series of penalties were rewarded when Bundee Aki provided Cian Prendergast who muscled over the line. Carty again added the extras for a 14-10 half-time lead.
Connacht came out in the second half on the attack, forcing the visitors into a concession of penalties, which included a yellow card to openside Tommy Reffell. The third try when it came was well executed from a line-out and drive before Kieran Marmion found his way to touch down, and once again Carty converted. Five minutes later, and with all the momentum, Connacht made it count - the forwards playing their part before the ball was sent through the hands and Tiernan O’Halloran finished for the fourth try and bonus point, Carty’s conversion putting the home side into a 28-10 lead.
Tigers, however, continued to attack with both speed and power to get back into the game as Genge and Wiese led the charge, re-established territorial control through their scrum, and introduced replacement wing Hosea Saumaki who created problems for Connacht. However it was Murimurivali who again crashed over following a Wiese turnover, and Burns converted to close the gap to 28-17 on 56 minutes.
With the momentum, the visitors never relented, adding another maul try through replacement hooker Charlie Clare, and just four points down, they staged their last stand. It was a winning one for the English premiership leaders who now advance to the next round, while Connacht’s two bonus points keeps them very much in the fight.
CONNACHT RUGBY: T O'Halloran, J Porch, S Arnold, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty (C ), K Marmion, M Burke, S Delahunt, F Bealham, O Dowling, N Murray,C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler.
Replacements: D Heffernan for Delahunt (47 ), T Tuimauga, J Aungier for Bealham (49m ), U Dillane for Dowling (52 ), T Farrell for Healy (60m ), P Boyle for Butler, C Blade for Marmion and T Tuimauga for Burke (all 61m ), Burke for Anger (65 ).
LEICESTER TIGERS: B Hegarty, F Steward, M Scott, JP Socino, K Murimurivalu, F Burns, R Wigglesworth, E Genge (C ), N Dolly, J Heyes, H Wells, C Green, O Chessum, T Reffell, J Wiese.
Replacements: C Clare for Dolly and D Kelly for Socino (47m ), J van Poortvliet for Wigglesworth (53M ), H Saumaki for Murimurivalu (57m ), N Leatigagi for Heyes (67m ).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France ).