Connacht 14 Edinburgh 9
By Rob Murphy at the Sportsground
The words high and flying are frequently popping up in media outlets around Ireland when referencing Connacht’s professional rugby team in recent weeks.
Why? Well quite simply, they sit second in the table with five wins from six games and four very valuable bonus points thrown in for very good measure. At the very least, they’ve caught the attention of a lot of people.
For Pat Lam, that one defeat away to Glasgow still rankles. A mark of the man perhaps.
As a result, he certainly isn’t calling this the perfect start but in the same breath, he readily acknowledges that they are very much in a strong position after a string of impressive results to start the campaign.
Saturday evening at the Sportsground was another really strong marker. Perhaps the most impressive yet at their home grounds.
The only fireworks on this Halloween night were shooting up above the Clan Terrace from the estates around east Galway. On the field it was a game of chess between two fairly evenly matched sides but Connacht’s victory was born from a keen sense of control and poise.
Those elements have emerged in the last two weeks. In the previous four rounds, Connacht were relentless in attacking play but leaky and imprecise in a lot of the defensive aspects of the game.
Late on in the win over the Ospreys and for long periods here at the clear and dry Sportsground on Saturday evening, the diligence and attention to detail when the ball was with the opposition proved to be the cornerstone of the success.
The difference between the sides in the end was Tiernan O’Halloran’s try. From an attacking point of view, it was a rare moment of a brilliance in a game of many errors.
A game dominated by the overtly fussy refereeing Leighton Hodges. But that shouldn’t take away from the sheer precision involved in the first half move that carved the Edinburgh back line to pieces.
A lineout on the left hand side of the field on the ten metre line provided the platform. The ball was quickly transferred to Nepia Fox Matamua, who stood in the scrum half position for the move.
The flanker found Kieran Marmion whose sweeping pass took play into the middle of the field and into the hands of Jack Carty. The Athlone out half disguised his intentions well, passing back inside Matt Healy for the key break.
The left winger had timed his run perfectly and the switch of direction flat footed the defence. Healy has electric pace. He made 20 metres before drawing the full back and sending O’Halloran in for the try.
It was a try not far removed from the move Japan mustered in their famous World Cup win over South Africa in September.
Edinburgh had come to Galway to frustrate and have a fine record of doing just that at the Sportsground.
They were missing five forwards still resting from World Cup duty, but they are an improving force under Alan Solomons.
Unspectacular and lacking spark in their attacking play but tenacious and difficult to beat all the same. They did well here and might even have gone home in positive mood thanks to the losing bonus point.
Connacht led 8-6 at half time and never relinquished the lead after the break.
It was 14-9 by the hour mark and while the final quarter was tense as a result of the one score margin. Lam’s men succeeded in pinning the visitors back in their own 22 for long periods and rarely had their line threatened in the second half.
They’ll regret two missed penalties form Carty that could have taken that bonus point from the Scots but those are small potatoes.
The reality isn’t lost on anyone at the Sportsground. The PRO12 is only getting going properly this weekend and it will be after the European action that the league sees all of it star players back at full throttle.
Munster, Leinster, Glasgow and Ulster are all likely to see a surge in results while the league leading Scarlets seem set to stay the course too.
These first seven weeks were always going to be about grasping an opportunity for a Connacht side that ranked last in the league in terms of players involved in the World Cup.
And with Treviso to come, they’re on the verge of surpassing most pre-season expectation for what they could garner in this period.
Of the six fixtures played so far, Connacht are 12 points better off than they were in corresponding games last season. That augurs very well considering the progress they made in the record breaking campaign were comparing.
Treviso will be a test this Friday, but clear that hurdle and the westerners will be a force to be reckoned with when the action returns after two weeks of European action with a trip to Munster followed by a trek to Cardiff.
Nathan White returned to action after half time and added nous in the scrum to repel the strong Edinburgh pack. Robbie Henshaw is due back this week and will look to slot into a backline that is working very well and in top form.
O’Halloran’s performance at full back stood out here – the man of the match award as much for his tenacious defensive work and powerful carries with ball in hand.
In the pack, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon, Denis Buckley and the ever impressive Fox- Matamua all excelled in a battle that was atypical for a fixture that rarely sees more than a score between the sides when they meet in Galway.
Perhaps that’s why Lam was in as good a mood as we’ve seen him after any of the four home wins this year.
Tries are great but structure and control is what really sets teams apart in this league. In that sense, the foundations look strong for the men in green.
8′ 3-0 – penalty: Jack Carty
10′ 8-0 – try: Tiernan O’Halloran
16′ 8-3 – penalty: Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
38′ 8-6 – penalty: Blair Kinghorn
Half-time Connacht 8 Edinburgh 6
45′ 11-6 – penalty: Jack Carty
54′ 11-9 – penalty: Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
56′ 14-9 – penalty: Jack Carty
78′ yellow card – Fraser McKenzie
Connacht: T O’Halloran, D Leader, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, A Muldowney, A Browne, J Muldoon (capt), N Fox-Matamua, E Masterson.
Replacements: N White for A You and Q Roux for Muldowney (47 mins), E McKeon for Masterson (62 mins), I Porter for Marmion (69 mins), D Heffernan for McCartney, N Adeolokin for O’Halloran (both 71 mins), F Bealham for Buckley (73 mins), Q Roux for Muldowney (74 mins).
Edinburgh: B Kinghorn, D Hoyland, C Dean, S Beard, W Helu, P Burleigh, S Hidalgo-Clyne, R Sutherland, N Cochrane, J Andress, A Bresler, F McKenzie, M Coman (capt), R Grant, N Manu.
Replacements: N McLennan for Kinghorn (h-t), C De Preez for Manu (47 mins), A Toolis for Brelser (62 mins), A Dell for Sutherland, G Turner for Cochrane, S Berghan for Andress, D Fife for Burleigh (all 66 mins). Yellow card: Fraser McKenzie (77 mins).
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales)