Thursday 29 June 2017

Perfect start for Elwood's Connacht

Connacht 40
Dragons 17

BRENDAN FANNING at The Sportsground

To give you an idea of how poor the Dragons' record has been in Galway, the last time they won here Mike Ruddock was at the helm, and Wales was in its first season of regional rugby.

Torrents have flowed under the bridge since then (season 2003/04), and the direction didn't change yesterday. Rather it turned into a flood. A bonus point win on the first day -- rarely in Connacht do dreams like this become reality.

They played direct, aggressive and mostly very accurate rugby. Having an excellent set-piece, where Jamie Hagan was excellent at tight head, helped the cause, but it was the stuff in between that was equally impressive.

"We tried to play the game with a bit of tempo and as you saw that's when we were at our best," Eric Elwood said. "When we tried to contrive situations, or make the ball slow, it just didn't suit us and the lads went into their shell a little bit. So we are trying to play that type of game and when we do I think we're pretty decent at it."

It was a benefit to start with two of the their three Test stars -- both Sean Cronin and Gavin Duffy were very good -- and the sum of it saw them ride out two periods with men in the bin for minimal loss.

In circumstances where Connacht feared what might come next if they failed first up, it's hard to quantify the importance of a good start. As it turned out it was a brilliant one with a try inside three minutes.

Even in training this move hardly works as well, but the Dragons' midfield bought the dummy run without haggling and Niva Ta'auso burst through the hole. It needed decent support running to finish the move and Ray Ofisa provided it to score behind the posts. Ian Keatley converted for a seven-point start and Eric Elwood's prayers had been answered.

Keatley badly pulled a handy enough penalty on 13 minutes, as did Jason Tovey a few minutes later, before the Dragon got clothes-lined by new boy Ezra Taylor on 18 minutes. There is some concern in the west about Taylor's capacity to replace George Nauopu who was such a positive force for them last season before being lured to Japan by a truckload of cash.

As he trooped off to the sideline you could feel the unease around the Sportsground but three points directly from Matthew Jones was all they suffered in the 10 minutes without him. They produced brilliant approach work for a Keatley penalty on 21 minutes to go 13-3 up, and then when Luke Charteris was binned two minutes later for killing the ball, Connacht moved up a gear immediately.

Again they put together first-class support play -- with lovely hands from Frank Murphy -- to force another penalty for Keatley, and then just after the half hour they attacked really well from a powerful scrum and Jamie Hagan did well to feed Sean Cronin for the try. At 20-3 they had a game-wining lead if they kept on keeping on.

That's pretty much what they did after the break, with their scrum winning a penalty try, Keatley producing the touch down of the day with a searing run. Incidentally the weather was glorious, if not the attendance of 1,371. It deserved more.

Scorers -- Connacht: R Ofisa, S Cronin, pen try; I Keatley try 4 pens, 4 cons. Dragons: W Harries try; M Jones 3 pens; J Tovey pen.

Connacht: G Duffy (yc 49-59; T O'Halloran 69); T Nathan, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley (M Nikora 69), F Murphy (C Willis 63); B Wilkinson (R Loughney 56), S Cronin (A Flavin 56), J Hagan (R Sweeney 69), M Swift, B Upton, M McCarthy (M McComish 56), E Taylor (yc 18-28; D Nolan 58), R Ofisa.

Dragons: J Tovey; W Harries, R Gomer-Davies (D Bishop 58), T Riley, A Brew; M Jones, D Lee; H Gustafson, S Jones, B Castle, L Charteris (capt)(yc 23-33), S Morgan, J Bearman, H Ellis (D Lydiate ht), R Sowden-Taylor (G Thomas 47).

Referee: J Jones (Wales).

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