After a torrid period of narrow defeats Connacht lifted the gloom in Bayonne last Saturday evening with a surprise 35-21 victory away to the high flying Basque side. The westerners built up an early lead, withstood a strong fightback and finished with two well taken tries in the final ten minutes to take a memorable victory.
Eric Elwood’s European hopes ended in December with back to back defeat to Harlequins but Saturday’s victory will be a huge boost to his side’s confidence after a tough run of nine straight defeats in recent months.
“We had a lot to play for, pride in our own performance pride in team,” said Elwood. “We have got that elusive victory we have been looking for in recent weeks now and hopefully we can push on now and back it up next Saturday.
Elwood picked his strongest available line up for the contest but made some significant change with a view towards the run of games in February. Ian Keatley started at ten for the first time since the defeat to Treviso back in late October and produced a strong performance throughout.
Shane Monaghan and Eoin Griffin made their first European starts while 20-year old Shane Conneely came off the bench just before half time in place of the injured Johnny O’Connor and performed brilliantly in a tenacious and no holes barred second half.
“We had a very good start to the game, played a lot of positive rugby. They scored at crucial points either side of half time and got back within a point but credit to the lads they finished strongly, great try from Frank Murphy Sean Cronin and Brian Tuohy lifted us and Fionn (Carr ) then came up with the intercept try.”
Connacht dominated the opening quarter and built up a 13-3 lead thanks to a penalty try and eight points from the boot of Ian Keatley. The penalty try came from a break out wide where Brian Tuohy’s chip kick into the 22 looked to be in the path of Carr, the full back was taken out as he tried to gather and Peter Allen awarded a penalty try although Tuohy had gathered and was set to score anyways.
Bayonne scored tries either side of half time from Centre Thibault Lacroix and number eighth Marc Beget to close the gap to 22-21 but a Kealtey penalty stretched his side’s advantage to four points and a superb finish to the game sealed the win.
Frank Murphy’s trademark foot block at the base of a Bayonne scrum caused the ball to shoot into the air, the cork man got his hands on it and conjured up a spectacular offload to let the excellent Cronin - now playing at flanker because of injuries - loose down the wing. The speedy hooker, who had to slot in at flanker, held the defender just long enough to release Tuohy for his first European score.
In the 77th minute, Carr put the icing on the cake for Connacht when he intercepted a pass and sprinted 60 metres for his fifth try of the current campaign. Both conversions were missed, but they were not needed as Elwood's charges reaped the rewards of a huge collective effort. The Connacht coach is now looking forward to the next game.
“The first thing is Prato this weekend, we owe them a result after the defeat down there. We then have a week off for a break and we’re back in training then for the next game which comes in February agains the Scarlets. Our primary focus now is to win on Saturday and bring this confidence boost into next month.”
Next week’s Prato game should allow them to make it back to back wins going into a mini mid season break. The good news from the camp is that Gavin Duffy and Ray Ofisa are close to a return and their return to fitness might be vital ahead of a run of crucial Magners League games begins with Glasgow, Dragons and Treviso all within reach in the table, this season might well finish on a significant high note.