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Star studded Ospreys end Connacht’s opening day streak

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Connacht's Andrew Farley about to receive lineout ball in action from Friday's Magners League clash at The Sportsground.
Pic: Sportsfile.

Connacht's Andrew Farley about to receive lineout ball in action from Friday's Magners League clash at The Sportsground. Pic: Sportsfile.

Connacht 3

Ospreys 16

Connacht, the only team to have won every match on opening day since the Magners League began, were unable to extend that record against the visiting Ospreys at the Galway Sportsground.

It is a record Connacht would happily relinquish if, at the end of the season, they are playing Heineken Cup rugby – unlike previous years. While an opening night win can provide an early boost, it is a just one match of a long season during which Connacht will have plenty of opportunities to build momentum and produced a sustained push for Heineken Cup qualification.

In a game that did not feature high in the elegance stakes, there was nothing poor about Connacht's display. It was against a Welsh side that essentially won last season's Grand Slam and Five Nations –with 13 of the starting XV having Welsh caps, and another five on the bench. Understandably their coach Sean Holley has no problems bringing in untested talent like scrumhalf Rhys Webb until Mike Phillips gains fitness and Justin Marshall's replacement, New Zealand A player Jamie Nutbrown, arrives. Connacht do not have such luxuries, but of their newcomers on Friday night it was Sean Cronin who bore the biggest burden. Against a formidable Ospreys' front row, Cronin stood up well, and maintained Connacht's excellent line-out, showing all the signs of becoming a real talent for the province, if they can keep him. Elsewhere outhalf Ian Keatley did all that was asked of him. Not afraid to get involved, he also produced a couple of excellent touchfinders in the second half, while Fionn Carr looked assured.

However it was the weather that took centre stage, dictating this opening Magners League clash would not be a showpiece. As a result, it was a day for the forwards to utilise their strength, and at the heart of this victory was an Ospreys' pack who commanded the breakdown, put pressure on the Connacht scrum, and were physically superior.

That strength up front, particularly in the second half, prevented Connacht building any momentum, and in doing so ensured the home side could not break through for a vital try which could have turned the match.

As it was the Ospreys would have been a little nervous at half time, having posted just 13 points with a wind that looked to be worth up to 20. They had ruled possession and territory as a result of the conditions, but they only had a try and two penalties for their efforts, which became increasingly ragged as the half progressed against a gritty Connacht pack.

The visitors had enjoyed a positive start, with Hook striking his opening penalty after four minutes, and with Connacht struggling in the loose against a rampant backrow, led by Ryan Jones, the home side got little change when in possession.

Strangely the Ospreys opted to take their pots at goal rather than press for territorial gain despite the backing of the strong wind, and an ambitious kick from Hook just inside his own half very nearly had the legs, but not the accuracy.

When Hook missed another penalty from the 10m line, the Ospreys, despite their possession and a strong penalty count in their favour, were just three points ahead.

Crucially they scored a try within a minute. Byrne had set up field position with a midfield surge after Connacht scrumhalf Frank Murphy had opted to clear from a creaking scrum. Hook did not look to have executed the best chip – in fact it looked as though he was about to spill the ball – but managed to kick through and in the race for the line it was Scottish international Nikki Walker who prevailed ahead of Connacht's Liam Bibo in his first start in a Magners League fixture.

Despite the wind the Ospreys failed to threaten the Connacht line, apart from another chip from Hook, who also managed a three-pointer when Connacht skipper John Muldoon was sinbinned. Incredibly they lost a little discipline in the closing stages of the half, ensuring Connacht had a penalty just before the break. Into the wind Keatley was just short, and although Connacht had forced themselves into a scoring position, the half-time whistle interrupted. The concession of those three late penalties, which closed the margin in a penalty count against Connacht, could have cost the Ospreys on a drier evening.

And within minutes of the restart it looked as though Connacht would make an impact. Ospreys hooker Huw Bennett also was sidelined with a yellow card early and Keatley struck Connacht's first points. Connacht continued to disrupt their opponents' line-out – their best feature of the day – as the home outfit enjoyed a period of territorial advantage. Keatley put in a similar chip to Hook through the middle, but on this occasion it was the Ospreys fullback Lee Byrne who got the bounce, denying John Hearty a try.

In the end the sheer physicality of the Ospreys' front and backrows ensured Connacht could find no way through in conditions which mitigated against spreading the ball wide. They eventually wore Connacht down, and with the introduction of Duncan Jones, Connacht immediately conceded a penalty in the scrum - sufficient for Hook to bag his third penalty on 72 minutes and the first away points of the season.

"It was important to us that we started the second half well at 13-3," said Connacht's Michael Bradley. " Really the Ospreys' defence were disciplined and didn't give us too many opportunities in the second half and unfortunately for us they ran out winners.

"It was a tough game of rugby and there are a couple of work-ons for us for the match against the Scarlets next week. The effort was huge, the commitment excellent. but we just weren't able to turn them over on the day."

Yellow Cards: Connacht: John Muldoon, Andrew Farley.

Ospreys: Huw Bennett.

Connacht: F Carr, L Bibo, G Duffy, K Matthews, J Hearty, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris, M McCarthy, A Farley, J Muldoon (cpt ), R Ofisa, C Rigney.

Replacements: A Flavin for Cronin (69 ), R Loughney for Morris (69 ), Troy Nathan for Keatley (75 ).

Ospreys: L Bryne, N Walker, S Parker, A Bishop, T Bowe, J Hook , R Webb, P James, H Bennett, C Griffiths, I Gough, I Evans, A Lloyd, M Holah, R Jones (cpt ).

Replacements: E Shervington for Bennett (56 ), F TiaTia for Lloyd (60 ), A Jones for Gough (65 ), R Wells for Webb (65 ), D Jones for James (69 ).

Referee: Neil Patterson (Scotland ).

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