Wednesday 11 December 2019

Blade and Co show they deserve spot at Champions table

Connacht 23  Montpellier20

Sharp Blade: Caolin Blade dives over to score Connacht’s third try against Montpellier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Sharp Blade: Caolin Blade dives over to score Connacht’s third try against Montpellier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Connacht worked too hard to get back into the Heineken Champions Cup to be left behind before the competition got going.

Despite losing three starters to injury to exacerbate an already lengthy list of front-line absentees, they fronted up superbly against a Montpellier side who should be a much better team than they are.

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Colby Fainga’a of Connacht is tackled by Mohamed Haouas, left, Paul Willemse, centre, and Youri Delhommel of Montpellier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Colby Fainga’a of Connacht is tackled by Mohamed Haouas, left, Paul Willemse, centre, and Youri Delhommel of Montpellier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The western province went behind within 69 seconds of kick-off, lost loads of big collisions and missed a series of first-half chances yet they struck twice before half-time to take an unlikely lead in at the break.

The French side rolled on their huge, experienced bench and got back on level terms, but 22-year-old out-half Conor Fitzgerald threw a courageous, risky pass that led to a penalty he knocked over to win it.

They survived the danger thereafter and at the end of it all they celebrated loudly beneath the weak autumnal sun.

"It's massive, it shows the growth of this squad," man of the match Caolin Blade said. "Historically, we might have thrown the ball away at the end, we could have gone into our shells but we spoke about it when they scored; don't go into our shells or defensive mode - just attack them again. We saw the game out, there was extremely hard work from the forwards who I thought were incredible. They fronted up."

Colby Faingaa of Connacht is tackled by Paul Willemse of Montpellier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Colby Faingaa of Connacht is tackled by Paul Willemse of Montpellier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The win completed a clean sweep of Irish wins, but this was arguably the most impressive of the four.

Niyi Adeolokun, Matt Healy and captain Jarrad Butler pulled from the XV, with John Porch, Tom Daly and Robin Copeland called up and a number of players switching position.

And the home side were behind within two minutes. Wallaby Caleb Timu returning Jack Carty's chip with interest before Montpellier got their carriers going. They then used prop Mikheil Nariashvili to pull the ball back and moved the ball wide to Anthony Bouthier, who stepped outside Blade, drew Porch and fed Yvan Reilhac and he sent Aaron Cruden over under the sticks.

Rocked

17 November 2019; John Porch of Connacht is tackled by Aaron Cruden of Montpellier during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 5 Round 1 match between Connacht and Montpellier at The Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
17 November 2019; John Porch of Connacht is tackled by Aaron Cruden of Montpellier during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 5 Round 1 match between Connacht and Montpellier at The Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"It can, it didn't to us though," the scrum-half said when asked if the score could have rocked the hosts. "We were led really well today by Tom McCartney. We didn't even speak about it, we spoke about what went wrong and then on to the next job, to the kick-off.

"I suppose we took so many learnings from last week. When we conceded early we probably went into our shells, there we didn't and went straight on to the next job, attack again."

That they did, but a couple of chances went a-begging. Paillaugue picked off Paul Boyle's pass to Blade, Jack Carty missed touch and then couldn't find Godwin in acres of space.

The out-half did get his side off the mark when Bundee Aki chopped Anthony Bouthier at the ankles and then helped Tom McCartney to force a penalty at the ruck.

Paul Boyle of Connacht is tackled by Yvan Reilhac, left, and Arthur Vincent of Montpellier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Paul Boyle of Connacht is tackled by Yvan Reilhac, left, and Arthur Vincent of Montpellier. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Back came Montpellier, with their forwards winning collisions and Cruden picking his moments. Gabriel Ngandebe might have done better when slipped through by Bouthier. Porch killed the ball and Paillaugue made it 10-3.

Connacht spurned another chance when Aki released centre partner Daly. He failed to spot Blade inside him and, on the next phase, Godwin sent an aimless chip into the 22.

The hosts were let off the hook when blindside Kelian Galletier thought he was in only to be called back for a dubious forward pass. That kept Connacht in the match and they took advantage to go in ahead.

There was a bit of luck involved when Paillaugue's box-kick cannoned off the backside of his loosehead prop and ref Matthew Carley gave Connacht a scrum in the Montpellier 22.

They made the most of it, sending Tom Daly up the middle and working their way through several phases before Blade went close and the outstanding Boyle powered through Paul Willemse to score.

Carty missed the conversion, but Connacht kept at it.

Their scrum forced a penalty on halfway, Willemse took the legs out from the airborne Colby Fainga'a and was sent to the bin. The out-half kicked to the corner and the pack made the extra man count, brilliantly mauling over for McCartney to score.

Again, Carty missed the conversion meaning Friend's men took a three-point lead in at the break.

Paillaugue levelled six minutes after the restart but Connacht kept at it, fighting their way through a series of phases in the Montpellier 22 before Blade slipped Youri Delhommel to score and Carty put them seven up.

Back came Montpellier, but Aki pulled off a superb breakdown penalty as they rumbled forward and Carty cleared.

But the scores were level once more just after the hour-mark, Springbok Jan Serfontein steamrolled Carty, before Bouthier stepped Daly and left a trail of flailing tacklers in his wake to score and Paillaugue made it 20-all.

On came Fitzgerald and he looked at home, flinging his wide pass before nailing the penalty to put the hosts out in front once again.

Denis Buckley and Robin Copeland came up with huge defensive plays as the French side came in search of the win, but were unable to break Connacht down.

At the end, they raucously celebrated a famous win as they marked their return by justifying their presence at Europe's top table.

CONNACHT - D Leader; J Porch, B Aki, T Daly, K Godwin; J Carty (C Fitzgerald 65), C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney (capt) (D Heffernan 74), D Robertson-McCoy (C Kenny 74); C Gallagher (J Maksymiw 14) (E Masterson 65), U Dillane; P Boyle, C Fainga'a, R Copeland.

MONTPELLIER - A Bouthier; G Ngandebe, A Vincent, J Serfontein, Y Reilhac; A Cruden (H Immelman 57), B Paillague (capt) (E Sanga 65); M Narishvili (G Fichten 56), Y Delhommel (B Du Plessis 55), M Haouas (J Du Plessis 71); N Janse van Rensburg, P Willemse (WJ du Plessis 47); K Galletier (J Bardy 56), Y Camara (F Ouedraogo 74), C Timu.

Ref - M Carley (England)

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