ROB MURPHY AT THE SPORTSGROUND
THEY had to win. Andy Friend knew that, everyone knew that.
Even with all the excuses you could ask for, Connacht had to win their opening Champions Cup game on Sunday for the sake of their interest in this competition, their continued ambition to become consistently competitive at the elite level and their hope of selling out the Sportsground during the winter months.
That’s the harsh reality of the game here. You have a team from France, flying to Ireland in their billionaire owner’s plane, arriving with a 50 cap All-Black at out half and a forward pack full of internationals, up against a Connacht side with very little squad depth, a small budget and an inability to even charter a flight when they go on the road this week to Toulouse.
The haves versus the have nots and both under pressure for very different reasons . . . one trying to justify their value and the investment in them, the other trying to establish a foothold in this environment, attempting to go above and beyond what seems possible. That’s what gets lost in the narrative around wins like this.
The outstanding game plan, hair-raising moments of defensive turnovers and barnstorming tries are all simply what is required. Just a week on from their worst ever effort under Andy Friend, this group of Connacht players produced the highlight moment of the Australian’s 16 month reign and it was his wider management team that took a large slice of the credit here, not least Jimmy Duffy for how he prepared a depleted group of forwards to counteract a seemingly unstoppable Montpellier maul throughout the contest.
The bigger and stronger visitors had expected to lay waste to Connacht at the line-outs but each time they won clean ball, Connacht were ready to repel with a well crafted plan to disrupt and halt the most important attacking weapon of Vern Cotter’s side.
The game plan worked to perfection and by the contest’s end, it was the home pack that had produced the game’s only successful driving maul. That’s just one element of a complicated story.
This was a game that hung in the balance throughout, two evenly matched sides each producing a strong case as to why they might have deserved a victory here. Montpellier’s opening try was eye catching and brilliant, Aaron Cruden scored it, Jan Serfontein and Yvan Reilhac played key roles in making it as a sweeping right to left backline move and a pass back inside, neatly unlocked the Connacht defence 90 seconds into the game.
The first half hour was hair raising. Connacht had chances, brilliant breaks that were one pass away from leading to tries. Paul Boyle had one but forced the pass to Caolin Blade, Tom Daly had another after a McCartney turnover and a well timed Bundee Aki pass only for the move to end with him not spotting that man Blade in acres of space.
Connacht had four visits to the visitors 22 and only a Jack Carty penalty to show for it. Yet in the final ten minutes of the half, they turned a seven point deficit into a three point lead and hope and belief swept through the ground.
The first try came from a scrum in the visitors 22 and a series of well carved out gains through one out attacking charges by the forwards. It was a back, that man Blade, that had the last leg driving surge before Boyle scored the try picking up a metre out and powering over.
That should have been it for half time but Montpellier conceded an injury time penalty at a scrum and then another at the subsequent lineout that saw the important powerhouse second row Paul Willamse sin binned for taking out a leaping Colby Fainga’a in the air.
It was a body blow for the French and Connacht delivered on the chance with a lineout take and maul that saw captain Tom McCartney drive over.
Blade got the third try early to crown a truly brilliant display from the former Monivea scrum half but Montpellier did fight back with a terrific try of their own from Anthony Bouthier that levelled matters at 20-all, only for emerging young out half Conor Fitzgerald to come off the bench and close the game out with a perfectly struck penalty on 68 minutes and a poised effort all round.
The game was won and lost in the forwards though. Connacht prevailed, off the back of a brilliant effort from those in the positions. Denis Buckley was a stand out. Time and again in Europe, the loose head prop has taken on the best tightheads in the game and outfoxed them. This was another example, he also had 18 tackles. Buckley is just one of eight or nine stories like that.
Colby Fainga’a returned to the starting line up with a bang, it made up for the absence of Jared Butler through injury. Dominic Robertson McCoy had his best ever game for the province in the absences of Finlay Bealham, Robin Copeland was also at his best, Boyle continues to be consistently brilliant.
The list goes on and on but the bottom line is this was another superb Sportsground display that should ensure there will be another two thousand through the turnstiles for the Gloucester home game in December, notwithstanding the unglamorous lunchtime Sunday kick off.
That’s the reality for Connacht. They have to keep doing this over and over. They are a professional team in a sparsely populated part of the country with a stingy budget provided to them from the powers that be, so every Champions Cup win is above and beyond expectations and they’ve just got to make these days the norm.
To that end, the excuses about odd Sunday lunchtime kick off times, the need for a new stadium with seats and better facilities or the realities of a small population won’t wash in terms of attendances. Put simply; 6,220 isn’t a big enough crowd for Champions Cup rugby. They simply have to sell these games out to the 8,100 capacity. If they do, like the players on the field, they’ll be doing a remarkable job but that’s Connacht in a nutshell – accept the excuses and mediocrity awaits, shun them and greatness is possible. Saturday was very much in the greatness category.
Connacht: D Leader; J Porch, B Aki, T Daly; K Godwin; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney, D RoberstonMcCoy; C Callagher, U Dillane, P Boyle, C Fainga’a; R Copeland. Replacements: J Maksymiw for C Gallagher (9 mins), E Masterson for J Maksymiw, C Fitzgerald for J Carty (65 mins), D Heffernan for T McCartney (72 mins), C Kenny for D Robertson-McCoy (76 mins).
Montpellier: A Bouthier; G Ngandebe, A Vincent, J Serfontein, Y Reilhac; A Cruden. B Paillague; M Bariashvili, Y Delhommel, M Haouas; N Janse Van Resnburg; P Willimse; K Galletier, Y Camara; C Timu. Replacements: WJ de Plessis for Willemsde (52 mins), B Du Plessis for Y Delhommel (55 mins), 21 J Bardy for 1 M Nariashvilli , G Fichten for K Galletier (57 mins), H Immelman for A Cruden ((57 mins), E Sanga for B Paillaugue (65 mins), J De Plessis for M Haouas (71 mins), F Ouedraogo for Y Camara (75 mins).
Referee: M Carley (England).