Connacht rise up to give Sarries a fright

No upset and no giant killing at the Galway Sportsground, but it went so very close as Connacht put the English premiership leaders Saracens to the sword.

England's favourites for this season's Heineken Cup had expected to deliver in much the same way as they have in this year's premiership, but despite their confidence and impressive speed in attack, Connacht came within inches of causing a major upset in this opening pool three fixture, which finished Connacht 17 Saracens 23.

Connacht coach Pat Lam paid tribute to his players for their massive effort.

"It's not just a rugby game, it's a culture. What we are trying to build here from what Eric Elwood has done is billed relations, and we are one team. As that happens the boys can go out and give them all. We showed a lot of character, it's just gutting that didn't get the win in the end."

Although Saracens took an early grip on the game, Connacht brought the sides level at the break. And, with their trademark defence keeping Sarries at bay for long periods in the second half, the stalemate was only broken by two Owen Farrell penalties.

No thrashing then for the Irish province, no bonus-winning try for the club promoting the breakaway tournament that would exclude the likes of Connacht, but a well deserved loser's bonus point for the home side that once again rose to the challenge of Heineken Cup rugby and gave the 7,500 supporters another night to remember.

Few would have expected the sides to be level at the break after Saracens had breached the Connacht defence to score the first of two tries after just six minutes. Chris Wyles claimed the opener after exposing a gap in the Connacht midfield, and the speed of the Saracens’ backline, led by Owen Farrell, ensured the Connacht cover barely had time to catch a breath.

A Parks' penalty opened the home side’s scoring when Saracens conceded at the breakdown, but the visitors were back up the other end within two minutes. Goode broke through from half way, the Vunipola brothers weighed in at the breakdown, and Neil de Kock spun the ball wide where Chris Ashton was a willing recipient, finishing from 30m.

At that stage Connacht were struggling to gain ground in attack, but a solid line-out and a steady scrum against Sarries' two Lions, kept Connacht in contention. It was, however, Parks’ boot that became an increasingly useful tool and his garryowen provided the first scoring foray when Danie Poolman fielded inside the Saracen's half and scrumhalf Kieron Marmion raced through from 40 metres to score. Parks added the conversion, reducing the deficit to 10-14.

Athough Farrell added a 25th minute penalty to go seven points clear, Connacht began to make inroads and gain confidence with Gavin Duffy, Danie Poolman and Robbie Henshaw, always safe under the high ball. Poolman and Ronaldson combined up the left wing and came within a whisker of the line, and eventually, after the pack had put in the hard yards, Poolman cut inside to cross for a second try with Park adding the conversion to draw the sides level.

Saracens’ frenetic pace continued after the break and immediately had Connacht under early pressure in the second half. Twice the television match official denied Sarries a try as the Connacht cover held firm with Poolman, assisted by Marmion and the ever-brave Muldoon, did well to turn scrumhalf de Kock after the Sprinkbok broke on the blind from the scrum. After 11 minutes of pressure, Saracens opted to kick from the left touchline to grab back the lead by 20-17.

Six minutes from time Farrell was given a rare opportunity and edged the premiership leaders six ahead.

However it was Connacht who could have grabbed the match winner when Duffy, George Naoupu and Tiernan O'Halloran had broken out of defence to set Connacht up in the Sarries’ 22, and from a penalty to touch five metres out, Saracens were under the cosh. In the end the referee made the decision when penalising the home side, thus saving Saracens' blushes.

Connacht: G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, C Ronaldson, D Poolman; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, S Henry, R Ah You, M Swift (c ), C Clarke, J Heenan, G Naoupu. Replacements: A Browne for Muldoon (54m ), A Muldowney for Swift (58m ), T O'Halloran for Carr (58m ), J So'oialo for Ronaldson (66m ), J Harris-Wright for Henry (69 ), P O'Donohoe for Marmion (70m ), JP Cooney for Wilkinson (71m ).

Saracens: A Goode, C Ashton, J Tomkins, C Wyles, S Strettle, O Farrell, N de Kock, M Vunipola, S Brits, M Stevens, S Borthwick (cpt ), G Kruis, K Brown, W Fraser, B Vunipola. Replacements, E Joubert for Fraser 33m, R Wigglesworth for de Kock (53m ), A Hargreaves for Kruis (56m ), D Taylor for Tomkins (59m ), J George for M Vunipola, R Gill for Brits, and J Johnston for Stevens (all 71m ), M Tagicakibau for Ashton (76m ).

 

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