After notching three successive wins on the trot - their first in nine seasons - Connacht have been assessing their injury concerns during this week’s rest from action.
Fetu Vainikolo, Gavin Duffy, Ethienne Reynecke, and Michael Swift were all replaced after suffering injuries in last week’s victory over Aironi, but Eric Elwood will be hopeful of their recovery in time for their final RaboDirect Pro 12 fixture away to Glasgow on Saturday week.
Glasgow, currently in fourth place and seeking to consolidate a place in the play-offs, have already issued a rallying cry to their supporters. Not only are they seeking a semi-final berth, but it is their last game at Firhill and the last with Sean Lineen in charge.
Connacht, however, will travel in confidence, having grabbed a last-minute win against Aironi in last weekend’s final home match of the season - a victory that currently puts them ahead of Treviso, Dragons, Edinburgh and Aironi. Although they will not get away with such a poor first-half showing again, their increasing maturity, composure, and belief reaped its rewards.
Down 16 - 3 at half time, Connacht stole the win with a Matthew Jarvis "wonder kick" from inside his own half on the stroke of full time, ensuring the Italian visitors failed to gain an elusive away victory before disbandment.
"We know what it is like," says Elwood. "We probably didn't deserve to win, they certainly didn't deserve to lose, and that’s why it's tough at times to take those. We should have beaten Leinster out here and Joe [Schmidt] tells me we were the best team, but he went home with the four points. We got the four points this time, so I am chuffed.
“When Jarvis went on for Gavin, I said to make sure if we get any long-range penalties that we don’t tap and go because it could be our only chance and it be could be decisive. So fair play to Jarvis. It was a good scrum by the boys and Jarvis showed great nerve having just come off the bench a couple of minutes before.”
If replacement Matthew Jarvis was the hero of the day, John Muldoon was the man of the match, lifting his side when it needed it most after a poor first half. Ray Ofisa, in his last home game for the province, continued to display his trademark commitment that has marked him out as one of Connacht’s greatest warriors, while young prop Denis Buckley held up his side of the scrum throughout. Replacement prop Rodney Ah You did what was asked of him, playing direct rugby that saw him grab a 74th minute try that brought Connacht level before forging a late-winning late penalty from the scrum.
Aironi, with the wind at their backs in the first half, took control, and Connacht's only points came from Miah Nikora's 19th minute penalty in answer to outhalf Luciano Orquero's opening drop goal. The Italians bossed the breakdown, were composed under the high ball, and centre Sinoti Sinoti's hard running set up the opening try which lock Quintin Geldenhuys claimed after 24 minutes. Orquero was on target with two late kicks for a 16 - 3 lead with only Tiernan O'Halloran and Fetu Vainikolo, before retiring injured, offering anything in attack.
"If our best 40 minutes was against the Dragons two weeks ago, then this was probably our worst," said Elwood. "The lads knew it was unacceptable. There was no continuity, we couldn't hold onto the ball, and it was not the type of tempo we want to play at.
“Nobody goes out to purposely knock on the ball, and I will not criticise players if they are trying. Some individuals had an off day, but we scraped through. Not perfect, but it is four points.
"Deep down, everybody knew what was at stake. One of Aironi's main goals was to get that elusive away victory- no more than ourselves over the last number of years. At half time that was in our thoughts, but because there was so much at stake, we were not going to allow that to happen. I am delighted the boys rolled up their sleeves in the second half."
John Muldoon led the charge with an early blockdown, and although held back, he looked to have got the touchdown but was denied by first-time referee Ian Davies. However it took a 60th minute penalty from Nikora before Connacht really found their oomph. A stolen line-out forced another Nikora penalty before Connacht took advantage of replacement Josh Furno's yellow card with Ah You bursting over the line. Nikora's conversion drew the sides level before Jarvis stepped up to send his last-gasp penalty through the posts, giving Connacht their first three-in-a-row since 2002.
“We are very pleased with the result because of the huge crowd, it was Ray’s [Ofisa] last game at the Sportsground, and I am glad for them and for the lads.
Yellow cards: Aironi, L Redolfina (74m ).
Connacht: G Duffy, T O'Halloran, K Tonetti, H Fa'afili, F Vainikolo; M Nikora, F Murphy, D Buckley, E Reynecke, R Loughney, M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacements, E Griffin for Vainikolo (27m ), A Flavin for Reynecke (HT ), J O'Connor for M Swfit (47m ), R Ah You for Loughney (55m ), M Kearney for McCarthy (65m ), M Jarvis for Duffy (67m ), P O'Donohoe for Murphy (69m ).
Aironi: T Tebaldi; G Toniolatti, S Sinoti, M Pratichetti, G Venditti; L Orquera, T Keats; M Aquero, F Ongaro, L Romano, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami, N Cattina, S Favaro, J Sole. Replacements, L Redolfini for Romano (61m ), J Furno for Geldenhuys, N Williams for Sole, and N Olivier for Orquero (all 70m ).
Referee: I Davies (WRU ).