Tuesday 27 September 2016

Defiant Connacht hold out to seize final shot at history

Connacht 16 Glasgow 11

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Sean O’Brien and Andrew Browne celebrate at the final whistle last night. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Sean O’Brien and Andrew Browne celebrate at the final whistle last night. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

If Friday night set the tone for what has been the most absorbing run-in to the Pro12 in the 15-year history of Celtic rugby, then last night's instalment at a packed Sportsground raised it another few notches. A different sort of game, but it's hard to remember a contest that had so much to recommend it. And at its end, Connacht - leaning on the massive support that fuels their spirit - won their way through to Saturday's Pro12 final in Edinburgh.

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It's been a season of firsts for them, between qualifying for Europe on merit and then making the last four of the league for the first time, so we shouldn't be too surprised that they added to that list here yesterday. And how they had to work for it.

They were given a leg-up by the freakish injury toll in the Glasgow ranks. Then that advantage in fresh legs receded when they had to edge their way through the last seven minutes with 14 men after replacement Rodney Ah You had been binned for a high tackle on Stuart Hogg.

In keeping with the script, Glasgow put the ball down four times as they tried to work their way down the field, into the wind, though referee Marius Mitrea wasn't keen on calling any of them forward. When he eventually satisfied the crowd the roof nearly came off the Clan Stand.

Twice those fans had seen tries ruled out on referrals upstairs, so the stress levels were of record proportions by the time we got to the home straight: understandable against a team of Glasgow's quality. Typical of reigning champions, they parked their injury issues and drove the game down to the wire. What a contest.

To the delight of the crowd, their hero Bundee Aki got the man of the match award. His ability to make big plays is unique in this league. And given the pressure exerted by the Glasgow defence, they needed him.

If the closing stages were frustrating for the away team then the start could not have been worse. Inside a minute they had lost two men, playmaker Finn Russell and prop Zander Ferguson, after they collided when trying to tackle Aki on the charge. Before they had got to the half-hour mark the casualty figure stretched to three when Simone Favaro followed, again with a head injury, and again it was sustained in bringing Aki to ground.

No team is tooled up to lose three players like that and not suffer - if not in the short term then certainly at the back end of the game when the tempo and intensity is taking its toll. Consider too that Connacht were able to face the second half with a full complement on the bench.

When assessing those reinforcements beforehand the home team's resources suffered by comparison. But those circumstances changed the equation and Gregor Townsend's men were battling fatigue in the final minutes.

Disruption was inevitable, so perhaps it was no surprise that despite the elements Glasgow were trailing at the break. They had succeeded in putting great pressure on the home attack, pressing hard on the outside and making it hard for Connacht to catch them out the back. Still, it only takes one slip and suddenly you've a hole to fill.

On 22 minutes, the excellent Tiernan O'Halloran exploited just such a gap to put Eoin McKeon over, but on the playback the try was ruled out after Aki had knocked on to start it all. Two minutes later, however, the crowd had something to hang onto when AJ MacGinty took three points when Glasgow had been too quick off the back of a lineout.

That typified Glasgow's aggression, but they were caught by Niyi Adeolokun on 37 minutes, with the scores tied 3-3 - MacGinty and Duncan Weir taking three points each - for a fine try off an Aki grubber.

They took that 10-3 lead into the second half but saw it cut to two points when Leone Nakarawa got over in the corner. If Glasgow's lineout had been more reliable they might have got more control on the game, but four losses from 12 throws was a killer. MacGinty made it 13-8 on 53 minutes before Weir pegged it back four minutes later.

And what a final quarter it was. Connacht passed up two kickable penalties to go to the corner before MacGinty took a handy shot on 65 minutes which edged them only slightly closer to the finish line. A five-point lead is an uncomfortable cushion against a side of Glasgow's quality. All the more so when Adeolokun had a second try ruled out, and then Ah You was binned. It was just about enough.

Scorers - Connacht: Adeolokun try MacGinty 3 pens, con; Glasgow Warriors: Naiyaravoro try, Weir 2 pens.

Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki (P Robb 71), M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion (J Cooney 60); R Loughney (R Ah You 65; yc 73), T McCartney, F Bealham (D Heffernan 70), U Dillane (A Browne 61), A Muldowney; E McKeon (S O'Brien 61), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt), J Heenan (JP Cooney 74).

Glasgow Warriors: S Hogg; T Seymour, M Bennett, P Horne, S Lamont (T Naiyaravoro 68); F Russell (D Weir 1), H Pyrgos; G Reid (R Grant 64), F Brown (P Macarthur 61), Z Fagerson (D Rae 1; R Grant temp 61-63); L Nakarawa, J Gray (capt); R Wilson, J Strauss (T Swinson 66), S Favaro (A Ashe 29)

Referee: M Mitrea (Italy)

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