Connacht prepare to knock Chiefs off top spot

Connacht's Eoin McKeon wins the line out in action from round 13 of the GUINNESS PRO12 game against Edinburgh on Friday night at the Sportsground. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht's Eoin McKeon wins the line out in action from round 13 of the GUINNESS PRO12 game against Edinburgh on Friday night at the Sportsground. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Billed as a winner-takes-all contest, Connacht and Exeter meet on Sunday (3.15pm ) in this season’s penultimate Challenge Cup pool fixture at the Galway Sportsground

With both teams having suffered one away defeat, Sunday’s winner is expected to top the group and automatically qualify for the quarter-finals. Connacht, currently two points behind the English premiership side, need a win in the Sportsground to keep their hopes alive, although they could still qualify as one of the top runners-up.

However more significant for Connacht is their desire to ensure the Sportsground is not breached again, having suffered a narrow defeat to Edinburgh last weekend for the first time this season.

It was a physical encounter in which the Scots prevailed, and coach Pat Lam knows another tough challenge is imminent from the English side with their sights set on ultimate Challenge Cup glory.

Connacht, having played poorly in their away fixture in Exeter, losing 33 - 13, know what they are up against, but they now have a real opportunity to show their credentials and play to potential in what is expected to be challenging conditions once again.

Good news for Connacht this week is the return of Nathan White to action in last evening’s Eagles v Leinster A fixtures - once again played in atrocious conditions. White’s return after 10 weeks out with an elbow injury is timely, while it is a real boost ahead of Sunday’s fixture to have secured locks Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane on two year deals.

Supporters to the Sportsground on Sunday can expect to see a response from Connacht after they were outmuscled in the collisions against Edinburgh. And another poor start with the wind advantage did not help.

Edinburgh were deserving winners on another tough night of driving wind and rain at the Sportsground, but Connacht took some consolation to come away with a losing bonus point as they maintained their sixth place position in the Pro 12 as closest rivals Scarlets fell to a 22-7 defeat to Glasgow.

Connacht coach Pat Lam, while disappointed to suffer their first defeat at home this season, said it was always going to be a difficult task in the conditions and against a side like Edinburgh.

"It was a bad start again. We have talked about it, and it is something we have to be better at because we have the legs to hang in there.

“I knew at half time it was not going to be enough in those conditions, but I challenged the guys to produce a monumental effort. We almost got there."

Describing the conditions as the worst he had seen at the ground, Lam said Connacht’s collisions needed to be better against a direct and tough side, he was also frustrated with the penalty count in the second half.

Connacht had taken a slender 13 - 7 lead into the break which never seemed enough in the conditions. Had not Pat Lam's men scored a late penalty try with Nikora adding the extras and a three-pointer on the stroke of half time, Connacht would have turned around in arrears.

Such was the early control of the visitors that Connacht found it hard to get their hands on the ball. Edinburgh, looking more confident with ball in hand, and a secure line-out and scrum, were able to dominate both territory and possession for long periods.

Connacht outhalf Miah Nikora had a first chance to score on eight minutes when turning defence into attack, and winning a penalty for offside, but his effort from the 10m line hit the upright.

In contrast Edinburgh, through a penalty to touch, once again set up territorial control, and from the line-out right wing Douie Fife cut a superb line through the Connacht cover. Only some well scrambled defence kept him out, but Connacht will kick themselves for failing to protect the ball and allowing the Edinburgh pack to drive to the line with No 8 Dave Denton securing the touch down. Scrumhalf Sam Hidalgo-Clyne converted for a 7-0 lead.

It took Bundee Aki to break the gain line and put some attacking intent into Connacht and the reward came with a penalty which Nikora struckto open Connacht's tally on 22 minutes. With momentum Connacht started to put the ball through the phases, and from a thumping Robbie Henshaw tackle, Connacht turned over possession and won a crucial penalty. With Edinburgh lock Ben Toolis yellow carded Connacht's opted to scrum and with the Edinburg pack backpeddaling, referee Leighton Hodges awarded the penalty try, which Nikora converted . Two minutes later he added a penalty to stretch the lead to 13-7.

The pendulum swing Edinburgh's way for most of the second half with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne levelling by the 49th minute with two early penalties. The visitors should have added to their score but Tim Visser knocked on from Hidalgo-Clyne's chip, but as Connacht found themselves increasingly on the wrong side of referee Leighton Hodges and with Finlay Bealham somewhat harshly yellow carded, the scrumhalf kicked his side into the lead on 70 minutes.

With a man in the bin and Bundee Aki forced off with an ankle injury, Connacht saw out the game by going through the phases, but unlike the previous week against Munster, they could not prevent their first home defeat of the season.

Yellow cards: Edinburgh, Ben Toolis 36, Connacht: Finlay Bealham (69m )

Connacht: M Muliaina, D Leader, R Henshaw, B Aki, D Poolman, M Nikora, K Marmion, D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (cpt ), W Faloon, EMcKeon. Replacements, F Bealham for Ah YOu (49 ), J Carty for Nikora (53m ), G Nauopu for McKeon and J Cooney for Marmion (56m ), R Loughney for Buckley, U Dilane for Roux and D McSharry for Muliani (64m ), D Heffernan for McCartney (65m ), R Ah You for Aki (77m ).

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