Connacht edge 14-man Glasgow in absorbing encounter to earn Sportsground semi
Connacht got the home semi-final they so desired, yet their reward for this pulsating win over Glasgow Warriors is a home semi-final against the league champions who will relish their return to Galway.
It means a bumper pay-day for the western province and a real chance at reaching a first final of the professional era and after this enthralling game they’ll have no problem selling the Sportsground out, but their injury list is running high in the front-row and Pat Lam faces an anxious two weeks before the Scots return.
We expected a day of attacking thrills, but the weather put paid to that and instead this was a heavyweight bout packed with big collisions.
And Connacht weren’t found wanting in those stakes, with John Muldoon leading a physical charge in a game that turned on Warriors prop Sila Puafisi’s deserved red card early in second-half.
Tiernan O’Halloran’s try proved the difference, but even against 14 men, the home side had to put in a big defensive effort to see the win out.
The league leaders coming into the final day, Glasgow looked to take the game to their hosts from the first whistle and looked dangerous from the off as Leone Nakarawa spotted some lax fringe defence and raced into the opposition half.
That break led to a first scoring opportunity for the visitors but Finn Russell couldn’t oblige and the men in green escaped.
It was breathless stuff, but with the conditions difficult the defences generally came out on top as both sides played as if this was the final, rather than the final round of regular season games.
The Warriors clearly believed that line-speed is the key to shutting Connacht’s brilliant attack down and flew up every time Pat Lam’s side had the ball.
In turn, the westerners were aggressive in every contact; led by captain John Muldoon and the twin terrors Ultan Dillane and Bundee Aki who threw themselves at every approaching black jersey with little regard to their own safety.
The home side’s chances took a blow after just three minutes as tighthead prop Finlay Bealham was forced off, meaning Rodney Ah You would have to get around the park for 73 minutes.
The Kiwi-born, Ireland international hauled down a maul with his first intervention – a mistake that went unpunished when Russell kicked the penalty dead – but from then on he joined the party with some big hits.
Glasgow continued to pile on pressure, with Tommy Seymour picking off Aki’s no-look pass, before Nakarawa went on the charge again but prop Gordon Reid knocked on and the chance was gone.
Connacht were living on their nerves, but an AJ MacGinty hit, followed by Jake Heenan’s turnover turned the tide as Robbie Henshaw kicked and chased, before Kieran Marmion re-applied the pressure and the under-pressure Scots conceded a penalty at the breakdown.
MacGinty kicked to the corner and Connacht mauled on Muldoon. Referee Ian Davies signalled penalty advantage and the men in green sensed their chance, with MacGinty finding Henshaw who fed Aki and the Samoan split two defenders to drive over for a superb try.
The Sportsground erupted and the place was further lifted when Russell missed a decidedly kickable penalty to narrow the gap as his poor day continued.
That was followed by more big defence, with Muldoon leading the way and Dillane making some bone-crunching impacts and that allowed them go up the field where Aki broke clear again, but couldn’t connect with Marmion, before MacGinty was stopped short and Aly Muldowney knocked on with Davies missing a blatant illegal intervention from Nakarawa as the Welsh official’s popularity plummeted in Galway.
Despite that missed opportunity, the pressure was all coming one way with the home scrum on top. Yet, Connacht couldn’t add to their solitary score before half-time, as they led 7-0 at the interval.
That allowed the visitors regroup and they were level within six minutes of the restart as they mauled their way to within a metre of the line before Gordon Reid powered through Muldowney to score.
Then, they committed hari kari as prop Sila Puafisi was warned for stupidly launching himself over a ruck, before then launching himself head first at Marmion on the next play, connecting with the scrum-half’s head.
He gave Davies little choice but to reach for his red card. Connacht went for the try from the maul, but came up short when Ah You’s off-load to Heenan went to ground.
Ah You was forced off with a head injury, while MacGinty also left the fray with an injury yet the momentum was all with the hosts as Glasgow were forced to replace back-row Rob Harley with prop Zander Fagerson before Ronan Loughney also left the fray injured.
Connacht should have gone in front from the scrum, with Marmion executing a Peter Stringer-style break, but he held on to the ball when he could have put Niyi Adeolokun over. The westerners recycled, but after bashing at the line, Matt Healy was unable to hold the final pass from Tiernan O’Halloran
The full-back made up for it a few minutes later as he rose above Stuart Hogg to claim Shane O’Leary’s cross-kick and score after Connacht’s maul had driven close to the line.
O’Leary converted and the champions were in trouble, yet the game swung again when JP Cooney – Connacht’s third tighthead – was forced off and the they weren’t allowed to replace him and had to drop to 14 men as the scrum went uncontested.
That meant the advantage of Puafisi’s idiocy was negated, but Dillane plucked a key Glasgow lineout out of the sky, before Peter Horne spilled the ball and Aki hacked on and Seymour was forced to carry the ball over his own line.
Connacht couldn’t take advantage as Dave Heffernan spilled the ball, but Cooney returned to give them their advantage back and they were still deep in Warrior territory.
Yet, the champions kept on coming. Grayson Hart tapped a penalty and Mark Bennett slipped Quinn Roux’s tackle but Connacht scrambled and, despite a long series of excellent continuity that saw Glasgow try and try again, the error eventually came when Pat MacArthur knocked on and Connacht played keep ball until the visitors infringed and the Sportsground erupted.
CONNACHT – T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki (P Robb 74), M Healy; AJ MacGinty (S O’Leary 54), K Marmion (J Cooney 66); R Loughney, T McCartney, F Bealham (R Ah You 3) (JP Cooney 52) (Q Roux 70); U Dillane (Q Roux 73), A Muldowney; S O’Brien (E McKeon 63), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).
GLASGOW WARRIORS – S Hogg; T Seymour, A Dunbar (M Bennett 12), P Horne, L Jones; F Russell, A Price (G Hart 70); G Reid (J Yanuyanutawa 57), F Brown (P MacArthur 58), S Puafisi; L Nakarawa, J Gray (T Swinson 27-34); R Harley (Z Fagerson 56), R Wilson (S Favaro 19-27, 67), J Strauss.
Referee: I Davies (Wales)