Carr helps steer home Connacht
IT'S been a good week for Connacht rugby.
First there was the massive boost of international hooker Sean Cronin's contract extension -- an example that could help pave the way for more young indigenous talent making the trek west -- and, last night in Galway, they booked their home quarter-final in the Challenge Cup (with only a trip to Madrid left next week) with a well-earned 10-point victory over a committed but ill-disciplined Montpellier side.
The French were going for a quarter-final berth also but opted to leave out their big guns Francois Trinh-Duch, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Federico Todeschini, a lack of ambition that cost them, particularly the absence of Todeschini's place-kicking.
Frank Murphy led the way for Connacht with a superb all-round performance, closely followed by Ian Keatley while Cronin, John Muldoon and the rest of the forwards fronted up in attack and defence.
With Gavin Duffy injured, there is not a whole lot in the Connacht back line outside the half-backs, with the exception of the quicksilver Fionn Carr, and this is the area where Cronin's contract example can have the greatest effect as there are plenty of talented young Irish backs short on game time in the other provinces.
After turning Connacht over from their kick-off reception, Montpellier dominated the opening minutes, effecting a series of mauls and close-in drives that took them deep into the Connacht 22 only for Jacques Schutte to fluff a drop goal attempt and scrum-half Adrien Tomas to miss a penalty.
Connacht launched their riposte with Montpellier's penalty concessions aiding their cause considerably (eight to three at half-time), Keatley made it 3-0 to the home side from a scrum penalty after nine minutes.
The Montpellier maul was proving difficult to handle while the wind gave them a significant advantage. A 20-metre rumble by the visitors put Connacht on the back foot and Tomas tied it up at 3-3 after 19 minutes.
The rest of the half revolved around the same theme: the visitors pushing Connacht back and Muldoon and his colleagues scrapping, tackling and charging furiously. Attempts to move the ball wide met with mixed results, Liam Bibo, Niva Ta'auso and Troy Nathan ran hard without breaking through while other moves broke down in midfield through poor handling.
Montpellier's spell on the Connacht line was successfully repelled after an excellent turnover win by the back row and, hampered by their penalty count, Montpellier were unable to add to their score before half-time.
On the resumption and emboldened by the wind, Connacht went straight for the jugular. Another bullocking charge from Cronin came up just short before Montpellier open-side Giorgi Chkhaidze was binned for killing the ball and Keatley made it 6-3.
Wilkinson began to have a field day in the scrums with able support from former Leinster prop Jamie Hagan who had come on for tight-head Robbie Morris and from this foundation, Murphy worked the ball right to Liam Bibo who scooted over in the right-hand corner, Keatley knocking over a beautiful touchline conversion for 13-3.
From that point it was only a question of scoreline not result. Carr got his first meaningful touch after 63 minutes when he broke through the middle and just failed to collect his own chip. He should have been put over two minutes later only for Ta'auso to ignore the scoring pass but his try-scoring lust was assuaged a minute later when he came infield again and produced a beautiful jinking run to touch down to the right of the posts after 66 minutes, Keatley making it 20-3 with the simple convert.
Murphy had already departed with a calf strain but Keatley's accurate kicking continued to thwart Montpellier ambition. Ollie Smith, once a regular in the England centre and good enough to be taken on the Lions tour to New Zealand, endured an unhappy evening, compounded by his sin-binning on 73 minutes for a dangerous tackle. The rest of the game petered out with Connacht comfortably in control until a late converted Montpellier try from Mamuka Gorgodze which was the final act of a satisfying evening for Michael Bradley and his team.
Connacht will fancy their chances against anyone at the Sportsground in the quarter-final. A good night for Connacht and for Ireland, given the performances of Cronin, Keatley, Murphy, Carr, Muldoon and Wilkinson and a good start to the year for a side that looks to be headed in the right direction.
CONNACHT -- T Nathan; L Bibo, N Ta'auso, K Matthews (A Wynne 71), F Carr; I Keatley (M Nikora 71), F Murphy (C O'Loughlin 62); B Wilkinson (R Loughney 69), S Cronin, R Morris (J Hagan 40); M Swift, B Upton (G Naoupu 69); M McCarthy, R Ofisa, J Muldoon (capt).
MONTPELLIER -- JM Alcade; B Thiery, O Smith, G Rees, T Brana; J Schutte, A Thomas (M Castell 65); E van Staden, J Caudullo, B Douglas (M Demarco 63); M Macurdy, M Gorgodze; V Bost, G Chkhaidze, M Giraud. Yellow cards: Chkhaidze 43, Smith 73.
REF -- P Allan (Scotland)