Saturday 24 March 2018

Connacht fall just short after failing to weather Quins storm

Connacht 22
Harlequins 30

BRENDAN FANNING at The Sportsground

Walking into the Sportsground yesterday, about 90 minutes ahead of kick off, a man asked: "It's not too late for the weather to change, is it?" It was a mild, sunny autumn afternoon. And by kick off the only thing that had changed was that the sun was a good deal lower in the sky. The subtext of course was that Connacht needed another biblical night, like the one that unfolded when the teams met here in the final pool game last season, to repeat their giant-killing act against one of the Premiership's top clubs.

Eric Elwood has long been unreceptive to the idea that the weather in Galway was seemingly worse than anywhere else on the planet, and that his team need a storm to survive. Well they certainly don't need one to play decent rugby -- at least not one from the heavens. The killer was that for all their efforts, which were massive, they got nothing from the game.

Quins were fitful, opening up with impressive momentum around the fringes where Connacht seemed to give them a lot of space, and then falling off the edge for a while, and getting caught cold by a Dave McSharry try, his second big touchdown of the last few weeks having cut an equally nice line against Leinster.

A stunning close to the half, with 10 points in just over three minutes, overhauled what had been a 9-19 scoreline, and while they failed to pull away after the break neither were they in danger of losing the game. Home coach Eric Elwood pointed to that period as the turning point in the game. And Quins captain Chris Robshaw agreed.

"The last 10 minutes in the first half was vital, and it gave us a bit of confidence going into half time and allowed us to regroup," Robshaw said.

The regrouping involved a plan to spend a lot more time in the Connacht 22 in the second half, which didn't quite work out. Every time they packed down a scrum there was the prospect of winning a penalty against the loose head -- Denis Buckley was giving away over 30 kilos and was done twice, and his replacement Brett Wilkinson once -- but Connacht's contesting of the loose ball was enough to win them vital turnovers. All of which kept Quins honest.

"Do you come here and have an easy ride?" asked coach Conor O'Shea afterwards. "I've been coming here all my life, and you don't. When you've given them that bit of energy by getting your defensive line wrong for that first try well you're going to be in a game. But we've nilled Connacht away and we've nilled Biarritz at home and we've got Zebre home and away, so there's a lot more to come from this team."

If they don't emerge from Pool 3 as top team there'll be a stewards' enquiry. They were able to put pace on the game beyond anything Connacht could do when they had the ball, and this really helped, especially for Danny Care's two tries in the first half. That said, Connacht defended naively off a scrum 20 metres out to give him an open road to the line.

That tore a hole in the home effort. They had been really efficient off the tee and out of hand where Dan Parks kicked beautifully for a 100 per cent return off six shots. He passed more ball than you would have thought, especially in the second half when Quins left space in behind. This was part down to a tricky breeze and partly because they want to play ball in hand rugby. The problem with Parks running that show however is that his absence of a running game makes the job easier for the opposition defence.

Quins, meanwhile, turned to Ben Botica, in for the injured Nick Evans, and he responded with an excellent seven from nine shots on goal, and a decent enough all round game besides. Connacht needed him to have an off day, and to get more than they did from referee Jerome Garces in order to pull off something spectacular. For all their efforts though, a bonus point would have looked a fair return on their scorecard. But then the distance between fairness and actuality is often a country mile. They will target Biarritz here in December, in the first of the back to back games, as a big team in need of toppling.

"It'll be one heck of a hard place for Biarritz to come," O'Shea said. That will be worth watching.

Scorers -- Connacht: McSharry try; Parks 5 pens, con. Harlequins: Care 2 tries, Botica 6 pens, con

Connacht: R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin (M Fafita 67), D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley (B Wilkinson 65), A Flavin (J Harris Wright 65), N White (capt), M Swift (E McKeon 65), M McCarthy (M Nikora 76), J Muldoon, G Naoupu, W Faloon (J O'Connor 57)

Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; B Botica, D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan, J Johnston, O Kohn (C Matthews 73), G Robson, M Fa'asavalu, N Easter, C Robshaw (capt)

Referee: J Garces (France)

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