Unbeaten in their European campaign with two vital on the road victories, Connacht are injecting some deserved impetus into their season.
In overcoming Worcester in Saturday’s Amlin Challenge Cup, Connacht have consolidated their lead of pool 2 and with it a very real chance to grab that one qualifying spot for the quarter-finals.
Away victories are a rare commodity for Connacht; even more scarce are victories against English premiership sides. But Connacht, in rediscovering the type of European form that had earned them six quarter-final berths, reeled in the years at Sixways.
Not since a famous home and away double over Northampton in 1997 have Connacht recorded an away victory over an English premiership side – the year in which the Irish province also topped the pool for the only time in its history of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
“It’s important to put down markers and this win is way up there. It’s history in terms of my involvement with the team. It has never been done,” said coach Michael Bradley who steps down from the post at the end of the season after seven years.
Connacht were certainly made aware of Worcester’s strengths in the opening 20 minutes when they too easily blew Connacht off the ball at the breakdown. “I think it was 20 minutes before we won our first ruck and it was a worry for us. However we got up to speed, but it’s something we will have to be aware of on Friday.”
The Warriors, who have held the premiership’s top two sides to draws this season, enjoyed the edge in the contact area for that first quarter, giving them domination in the possession stakes. However impressive debutant George Naoupu, John Muldoon, and Ray Ofisa found their feet and, aided and abetted by locks Bernie Upton and Mike McCarthy, Connacht came right back into the contest, defended with disciplined authority, and took their opportunities when presented. An intercept try from Ian Keatley on 20 minutes turned the opening half from a one-sided affair, in which Worcester, ruling possession and territory, had taken a 10 – 3 lead after both outhalves had exchanged early penalties.
The tactical kicking of former Wallaby Chris Latham had put Connacht under pressure in that opening quarter, eventually leading to a 13th minute try from Tom Wood following a mix-up in Connacht calls, but Worcester overplayed that card and Connacht’s back three gave them little change thereafter.
Willie Walker kept the Warriors in front, converting one of two penalties before Niva Ta’uaso, in tidying up an awkward passage of play, grabbed possession from a knock-on, interchanged with Gavin Duffy, and sent Fionn Carr racing through from half way for a 29th minute try. Keatley, who missed both conversions, added a 39th penalty for a 16-13 half time lead before Walker replied six minutes after the restart. Connacht continued to blunt Worcester’s attacking edge, epitomised by a turnover from Robbie Morris and the hard-working Sean Cronin. With Upton securing line-out ball, and French referee Jermone Garces taking a different view on the scrum in the second half, Connacht’s hassling and harrying frustrated a Warriors side that lost its controlling influence. When Keatley drilled a kick within five metres of the Warriors line, the deserving Cronin grabbed the overcooked line-out and charged through, with Keatley adding the extras for a 23-16 lead.
But Connacht were not home and dry, particularly when the Warriors took a quick tap penalty and the overlap saw Willie Walker touch down after 66 minutes. The missed conversion set up a nail-biting finish as both sides had their opportunities. However a disciplined Connacht soaked up the pressure. Muldoon, Upton and Wilkinson forced the turnover, and when Connacht won the penalty from their scrum 25m in front of the posts, it was a crowning moment for the pack and its scrummaging technique.
Keatley struck the penalty with aplomb to put the finishing touches to a performance Connacht have often threatened and finally delivered away from home.
Worcester Warriors: C Latham; C Pennell, A Grove, D Rasmussen, M Benjamin; W Walker, J Arr; A Black, C Fortey, T Taumoepeau; G Rawlinson, C Gillies; T Wood, P Sanderson, K Horstmann. Replacements, O Sourgens for Taumoepeau (HT ), G Kitchener for Rawlinson and A Lutui for Fortey (51 ), M Jones for C Pennell (56 ), C MacRae for Rasmussen (71 ), J Collins for Sanderson (73 ).
Connacht: G Duffy; L Bibo, N Ta'auso, A Wynne, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris; M McCarthy, B Upton; J Muldoon (capt ), R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacements, J Hagan for Morris, M McComish for Naoupu, M Swift for Ofisa (all 70m ); T Nathan for Bibo (71 ).
Referee: J Garces (France ).