Connacht dig deep to get back on track
Connacht 16 Bayonne 13
Amlin Challenge Cup
Connacht coach Eric Elwood looked for a big performance after their shocking defeat in Italy on the opening weekend and he got it from his men at the Sportsground last night.
It may have been a far from polished display but victory was everything as the Westerners attempted to get their European campaign back on track. And Connacht rolled up their sleeves and ground out the win in a tough and uncompromising clash against Bayonne, who had opened their campaign with a win over Harlequins.
The net result is that Connacht will now head into the back-to-back games with Harlequins in December with everything to play for.
The shock defeat last week to part-timers Cavalieri Prato ensured this was a must-win match and while Connacht lacked cohesion at times, they were well up for the fight and did more than enough to win.
Bayonne came with a strong side but they will be happy to leave Galway with a losing bonus point after producing little by way of attacking rugby.
Connacht needed leaders and it was recalled hooker Sean Cronin who put his hand up, with the Limerick man producing the sort of all-round busy performance that it likely to see him get plenty of action in the Autumn Internationals.
Aside from his basic duties, Cronin was everywhere in the loose as well as scoring the opening try and setting up the clincher in the second half to drive Connacht on.
And the return of the likes of Ray Ofisa, Gavin Duffy and Keith Matthews provided Connacht with the steel to overcome a Bayonne side who started their domestic championship in whirlwind fashion before slipping up in their last three matches.
Connacht were on the front foot from the outset and an Ian Keatley third-minute penalty from 25 metres was the perfect start. But they failed to keep that tempo and Bayonne fought their way back, with the massive boot of out-half Sebastien Fauque landing penalties from 52 and 49 metres to push them in front after 22 minutes.
Connacht were in danger of slipping away but then the game turned on its head when Bayonne No 8 Marc Baget knocked-on on his own 10-metre line and while everyone stood still, Cronin reacted the fastest to gain possession and sprint all the way to the left corner.
Keatley, who finished with a poor return of two kicks from seven, was off target with the touchline conversion. However, Fauque missed an easy kick just before the break after Connacht winger Darragh Fanning was yellow-carded for not releasing just when it seemed Bayonne were about to score after a great burst that saw former All-Black Troy Flavell charge for the line.
But Connacht not only survived minus a man, Keatley edged them further in front on 49 minutes with another penalty to make it 11-6.
Neither side gave an inch after that but then Cronin broke from deep to set up Fionn Carr and when he was held short, full-back Duffy was in support to dive over.
But Connacht had to endure a nervous finish as Bayonne, on a rare attack, scored off a lineout when replacement hooker David Roumieu got over for a converted try to leave just three between them, but that was as near as the French got as Connacht finished the game on the offensive.
Connacht -- G Duffy; D Fanning (T Nathan 65), N Ta'auso, K Mathews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan (B Fa'amuasili 66); M Swift, M McCarthy (B Upton 73); J O'Connor, R Ofisa, J Muldoon.
Bayonne -- P Elhorga; Y Huget, T Lacroix (G Ziegler 55), S Gerber, J Peyras Loustalet; S Fauque (J Pietersen 52, C Garcia 63), J Audy; P Lafond (F Da Ros 55), A Heguy (D Roumieu 48), T Lea'aetoa (D Avril 47); C Treloar (A Boutaty 47), T Flavell; J Puricelli, R Martin, M Baget (R Linde 56).
Ref -- C Damasco (Italy).