Sunday 18 February 2018

Connacht prove they belong at top table

Harlequins 25, Connacht 17

John Fallon

A Harlequins side who have brushed everyone aside in England this season was put to the pin of their collars by a spirited Connacht team who looked set for a shock win at the Stoop last night.

Connacht looked like a side who have been performing for years in the Heineken Cup as they revelled in the highly charged atmosphere at the London venue.

In the end, Harlequins were just relieved to secure the win but for long periods in the second half it seemed a remarkable victory was about to be achieved by Connacht, who were given a standing ovation by the crowd of 11,866 at the end of a highly entertaining clash.

Harlequins were forced to roll up their sleeves and work the phases in the opening half after Connacht took the game to them with some excellent play.

Notions that Eric Elwood's men would just try contain the English Premiership leaders were quickly dispelled and they showed a great appetite to spray the ball wide from the outset.

It may have been their first game in the Heineken Cup, but Harlequins are familiar foes and Connacht were not overawed by the occasion.

They were rewarded for their approach when a break from Eoin Griffin put Tiernan O'Halloran over for a fine try to stun Quins after 13 minutes.

Miah Nikora, who had earlier landed a penalty to cancel Nick Evans' opening effort, landed the conversion for Connacht to lead by 10-6.

But Harlequins hit back and took the game to Connacht and, by the interval, Elwood's men had made 93 tackles in their efforts to contain Conor O'Shea's side.

The pressure eventually told and, after Evans had landed his third penalty, Quins struck for an excellent try which started deep inside their own half and ended 15 phases later with scrum-half Karl Dickson getting the touchdown.

Evans landed the conversion from the left after 33 minutes to put Harlequins 16-10 in front.

EXTENDED

And the Kiwi extended the lead before the break when he made no mistake with a penalty from 35 metres.

Harlequins prop Joe Marler thought he had extended the lead with a try off a five-metre line-out, but he was whistled back for obstruction.

Replacement out-half Niall O'Connor had a chance to reduce the deficit shortly after coming on, but his effort from 32 metres to the right flew the wrong side of the near post after 53 minutes.

But Connacht got right into the game towards the end of the third quarter as they piled on the pressure. Skipper Gavin Duffy gave them great field possession with a kick to the right corner which was taken into touch by Sam Smith and Quins were not allowed clear their line as Connacht went for the kill.

Elwood's men threw everything into the move and sprayed it wide for Duffy to take the ball at pace and sprint home to score against his former side.

O'Connor added the difficult conversion from the left to make it 19-17 after 57 minutes and Quins looked rattled.

They managed to hit back with a rare second-half move which saw replacement scrum-half Danny Care thread a grubber through, but Mike McCarthy got back and did enough to prevent Smith getting the touchdown, although it took the television match official to make the call.

That meant there were just two points between the sides going into the latter stages, but Connacht were just unable to hit the front.

Harlequins made the game safe four minutes from time when Evans converted a penalty in front of the posts and he landed another in the dying seconds to kill off any hopes of a final fling from a Connacht side who will host Toulouse next weekend with plenty of confidence after this superb display.

Harlequins -- M Brown; S Stegmann, G Lowe (B Urdapilleta 33), J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans, K Dickson (D Care 50); J Marler, C Brooker (J Gray 57), J Johnston; O Kohn (T Vallejos 15), G Robson; M Fa'asavalu (L Wallace 72), C Robshaw, N Easter.

Connacht -- G Duffy; B Tuohy, E Griffin, D McSharry (H Fa'afili 66), T O'Halloran; M Nikora (N O'Connor 49), P O'Donohoe (F Murphy 55); B Wilkinson (R Loughney 69), A Flavin (E Reynecke 55), R Ah You (D Rogers 55); M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, R Ofisa (TJ Anderson 29), G Naoupu.

Ref -- J Garces (France).

Irish Independent

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