Friday 23 June 2017

Connacht secure Champions Cup play-off with Jekyll and Hyde performance

Connacht 20 Ospreys 24

Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran is tackled by Rhys Webb, left, and Tyler Ardron at the Sportsground
Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran is tackled by Rhys Webb, left, and Tyler Ardron at the Sportsground

Ruaidhri O'Connor at the Sportsground

Connacht survive for another week, but they’ll need vast improvement if they are to reach next season’s Champions Cup.

Leinster’s 36-22 win in Edinburgh means that Pat Lam’s side will face Gloucester in Kingsholm next Sunday, with the winner hosting France’s seventh placed team a week later in a play-off for qualification.

Ospreys’ failure to secure a four-try bonus means they will play Munster in Thomond Park next Saturday and they’ll be bitterly disappointed with their inability to ram home their 24-0 half-time advantage and get one last try.

The grim first-half had most of the 5,226 fans deeply concerned but with a strong wind at their backs the home side rallied and fought back strongly to secure a losing bonus.

Michael Swift signed off on his Sportsground career with a try scoring cameo, but with Scarlets winning against Treviso any chance of sixth place was gone.

Playing into a strong wind, Connacht drew first blood at scrum time but little else in an ominous first-half in which they were out-classed by their visitors.

Dan Biggar served warning of his threat from placed balls when sending over an early penalty from inside his own half, before he scored his side’s opening try when the increasingly dominant Ospreys scrum destroyed Connacht’s on their own put-in.

Dan Baker cleaned up with a pop to Rhys Webb who scoped the ball to Biggar and the out-half helped it on to Ben John who carved the disjointed defence open before putting the Wales star over.

Between Alun-Wyn Jones and Webb, the visitors were lording it over Connacht. The Lions second-row was causing all sorts of turmoil at the breakdown, while Webb put Kieran Marmion and his replacement John Cooney under pressure at every scrum.

Referee Marius Mitrea was letting Jones away with murder at the breakdown and Connacht couldn’t deal with him.

He forced a penalty inside his own ‘22 and Biggar found a good touch. After one carry in midfield, John stepped caught Tom McCartney and Denis Buckley napping to go in under the sticks.

With Munster having already secured a bonus point in the race for places, Ospreys had to keep coming and they didn’t let up as minutes later Webb careered over after good work by Dan Evans and Hanno Dirksen.

Biggar converted again and the Ospreys went in 24-0 up. They might have had the bonus point, but winger Eli Walker knocked onin the act of scoring what would have been a decisive try.

Instead, Connacht had a lifeline and with the wind at their backs they got off the mark after just a minute of the resumption when Jack Carty nailed a penalty after a ruck infringement and he made no mistake eight minutes later to make it 24-6 after Dmitri Arhip went off his feet following good work from John Muldoon.

They turned down their next chance when the Ospreys, attempting to slow the game down, obstructed at a maul and Carty went to touch.

Their first maul was hauled down illegally, so Connacht went again with a few backs involved for good measure and there was no stopping them as Eoghan Masterson touched down.

Carty converted and suddenly it was the hosts with their tails up.

But they couldn’t make it pay, spending time in Ospreys territory without the penetration.

Slowly, very slowly, the Welsh side took the wind out of the home side’s sails. Everything was done at their own pace, as they used their set-piece and defence - as well as the worsening conditions- to nullify Connacht.

Michael Swift’s introduction for what could be his final Sportsground appearance lifted the home crowd, but they couldn’t get access into the game until it was too late.

In the end, it was Swift who capped his moment with a try that Carty converted but it was too little for the win.

Events elsewhere meant it didn’t really matter. Connacht couldn’t catch Scarlets and Leinster had done them  favour in Murrayfield.

There was still time for the kick-off with the Ospreys chasing the bonus that would leave them on top of the table, but Munster could breathe a sigh of relief when the ball went dead and the Welsh region were sent on the road to Thomond Park next Saturday.

CONNACHT -- T O’Halloran; F Carr, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy (S O’Leary 69); J Carty, K Marmion (J Cooney 21); D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You (F Bealham 65); A Browne  (G Naoupu 61), A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, E McKeon (M Swift 65).

OSPREYS -- D Evans (S Davis 67); H Dirksen, B Kohn, J Matavesi, E Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin, D Arhip (A Jarvis 68); T Arsron, AW Jones (capt); J King (D Lydiate 61), J Tipuric, D Baker.

Referee: M Mitrea (Italy)

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