Connacht 55 Brive 10
By Rob Murphy at the Sportsground
Job done. Barring a highly unlikely home defeat to Oyonnax in round six, Connacht are now dead certs for a home Quarter final in this competition after they backed up a key away win in Brive in round three with a steamrolling second half drubbing of the same opposition on Saturday afternoon.
Matt Healy’s four tries were a highlight, the perfect kicking of Jack Carty, the lead from the front tour de force from Eoghan Masterson and the ever improving chemistry between new signing Pita Ahki and the Ireland capped Bundee Aki also made their way into the post game chats in cars, restaurants and bars. From the doom and gloom of Parma to a better all round ambience. No crisis here.
Connacht’s pool in this competition has been a gift for sure, all three opponents have only half heartedly committed to proceedings and Connacht have proven to be an overwhelming opponent in such circumstances. Sure, Worcester, might still be a tricky test in round five but on current form, Connacht can go there with confidence in search of a win that will keep their new objective in mind. A top two seed.
There are five pools in this competition, all pool winners advance along with three runners up. The best four ranked pool winners based on points accumulated in their six games, get home advantage at quarter final time, Connacht are seven points clear of Worcester now and look uncatchable for first, they also look certain to be among the top four seeds but can they go a little further and get in the top two, if they do a home semi final is on the horizon.
Make no mistake about it, Connacht are a very real contender in this competition now, Newcastle are another, unbeaten and chasing a first trophy in 20 years, emerging French big spenders Pau are targeting it as well as the final venue is within a few hours of their home ground while Edinburgh look strong under new coach Richard Cockerell are aiming to make some new history too.
There are other sides around the fringes, Cardiff, Bordeaux, Gloucester and Stade Francais to name a few but there are no names that could honestly come to the Sportsground with a high level of confidence. Kieran Keane and his squad seem to know that and they are clearly clued in to the potential progress that can be made in the spring. It has been a ruthless and hugely impressive four wins from four now.
The real question now is how much have these two free scoring wins against Brive improved their chances in the forthcoming trio of interprovincial fixtures. Ulster are up first on Saturday and based on current PRO14 form and standings, the men from the north should simply overwhelm Connacht and win at a canter. We already know that won’t happen though.
The last two weekends have shown us that the Zebre performance was probably more of a painful off day than a fair reflection of the overall capabilities of the westerners. It wasn’t perfect, the first quarter in Brive was obviously poor but the fightback was stunning and the attacking rugby as good as anything they have produced under the new management team.
The return of Aki has certainly helped, he has been less spectacular than usual and a lot more industrious and it is working. Carty has thrived in the out half role with his newly capped Irish international at 12, the Athlone native is playing the kind of rugby at the moment that might bring him back into contention for a place in the Irish Six Nations training camp. Consistency is still key though and that has been a tricky riddle for him up to now.
Young 20 year old Sligonian Cillian Gallagher has been a revelation over the last fortnight, playing a key role in the blindside flanker position and proving his versatility having switched from the second row. James Connolly stepped into the seven slot on Saturday and stood out with a fine effort allowing his coach to comfortably rest team captain John Muldoon.
The Portumna legend might be fighting for his place before the spring if current trends continue as Eoghan Masterson took the captain’s armband at the weekend and looked imperious in the role. Another reason for optimism for Keane who has worked hard to try and use as many players as possible during the first four months ensuring that he has multiple options in most positions.
As is often the case with games like this, the scoreline can sometimes fail to indicate the level of resistance from the opposition and in fairness to Brive, there was plenty of that in the first half of the contest. It was 17-10 at the break after a late Gaetan Germain penalty to go with his earlier try closed the gap to just one score.
Connacht’s first half tries came from Matt Healy’s acrobatic footwork along the touchline after a crossfield kick from Carty and Shane Delahunt’s deftly timed passing that set up Carty for the second but it was the second half where everything completely turned with Carty adding an early penalty and Healy notching his second try by the 50 minute mark.
Brive hooker Mike Tadjer was harshly sin binned soon after that and the floodgates well and truly opened with Healy notching a hat trick after a brilliantly executed grubber kick to the corner from home debutant Ahki and while Kieran Marmion combined with Tom Farrell just seconds after they both emerged from the bench. By the end, Healy had a fourth try while Farrell also got in on the act.
It wasn’t a perfect Christmas tale, Denis Buckley picked up a worrying ankle injury that awaits some scans while the performances of Ahki have been balanced with the knowledge that he’s away for the next two fixtures. He’s off home to get married in a break that was worked out before he arrived yet in comparison to previous campaigns, Connacht head into the Christmas period in good shape overall and unburdened by the intensity of the Champions Cup. That freshness might prove a real asset.
6′ 7-0 – try: Matt Healy ; conversion – Jack Carty
13′ 10-0 – penalty: Jack Carty
30′ 10-7 – try: Gaetan Germain; conversion – Gaetan Germain
33′ 17-7 – try: Jack Carty; conversion – Jack Carty
40′ 17-10 – penalty: Gaetan Germain
Half-time Connacht 17 Brive 10
42′ 20-10 – penalty: Jack Carty
50′ 27-10 – try: Matt Healy ; conversion – Jack Carty
58′ 34-10 – try: Matt Healy ; conversion – Jack Carty
60′ 41-10 – try: Kieran Marmion; conversion – Jack Carty
70′ 48-10 – try: Matt Healy ; conversion – Jack Carty
75′ 55-10 – try: Tom Farrell; conversion – Jack Carty
51′ yellow card – Mike Tadjer
Connacht: D Leader; C Kelleher, P Ahki, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, J Mitchell; D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham, U Dillane, Q Roux, C Gallagher, J Connolly, E Masterson (c).
Replacements: P McCabe for Buckley (35) ,T McCartney for Delahunt and C Carey for Bealham (45), J Cannon for Dillane (64), K Marmion, for Mitchell (58), T Farrell for Aki (58).
Brive: G Germain; N Megdoud, A Mignardi (c), B Petre, F Romanet; M Ugalde, F Cazenave; V Devisme, M Tadjer, D Bamba, J Snyman, J Uys, P Narisia, D Waqaniborutu, E Herjean.
Replacements:S Koyamaibole for Narisa (HT), L Martin for Devise and J Johnston for Bamba (45), G Namy for Romanet (51), T Laranjeira for Germain (59), J Ledevedec for Snyman (67), D Delarue for Cazenave (67).
Referee: I Tempest (RFU)