Wednesday 13 December 2017

Elwood proud as Connacht refuse to take step back

Connacht 22 Harlequins 30 David Kelly

Nine months on from a tempestuous uprising in the tempest, Connacht were once again hoping to lay out the red carpet for vaunted visitors before unceremoniously pulling it from beneath them.

Amidst clement conditions this time around, they were the perfect hosts. Sadly for them, it all seemed too perfect and too benign.

True, Connacht played their role in a superb game of rugby but, given the vast strength of the English champions in crucial areas, their pretty style of rugby just couldn't survive a carefully constructed onslaught of power and precision from Conor O'Shea's men.

They could argue that they went toe to toe with the English champions and lived to tell the tale.

When your loose-head is conceding 35kgs to his opposite man and the second-row locally reckoned to be a behemoth is coughing up more than 20kgs to his opponent, the task is infinitely more difficult, much as the westerners aim to wallow in bucking the odds.

Jarring

But, in essence, from the moment the visitors accelerated from seven points down to five points ahead thanks to a jarring Danny Care brace in the seven minutes before half-time, there only looked like being one winner.

It was a tribute to Connacht that their sterling efforts before then prompted such a devastating reaction.

"It was pretty disappointing," said Nathan White of the championship moments that transformed Quins' 19-9 deficit into a 24-19 advantage.

"We felt we were in control and playing really well. If we could have gone in with a lead there, it would have been a big psychological boost. With the crowd behind us, who knows what might have happened?"

Despite Dan Parks' early second-half penalty, Connacht were denied entry to the red zone thereafter as they stood resolutely to a game plan that spurned any reminder of the boot and bullock approach of yore.

It could be argued that Parks may have effected a more direct route to Quins territory but Eric Elwood's men remained true to themselves, although they slowly wilted beneath the awesome power harnessed by the visitors.

"We had a plan that we wanted to play from deep," stressed Elwood, even though White had earlier rued his side's inability to play field position better, particularly in the second half.

"We could have kicked to relieve the pressure. But we wanted to stray strong to what we were doing. We wanted to challenge them.

"There's no point kicking to a team like Harlequins because you're only inviting them on to you again. We wanted to play. I'm glad it was a nice evening. We had a full house. We wanted to play rugby. We showed that with the possession we had in the first half. Unfortunately, we didn't get enough of it. And we certainly didn't get enough in the second half."

They did, though, demonstrate enough glimpses to suggest that Biarritz could be targeted here in December, as O'Shea hopefully suggested.

Before then, the likes of Dave McSharry, who picked a superb line to storm in for Connacht's early try, could be linking up with some of his team-mates on international duty.

If Ireland's watching head coach Declan Kidney were to be adventurously bold, he could opt to play a clutch of the youthful Connacht backline against Fiji in what is a non-Test match.

"I'd like to think that they're not under anybody's radar," added Elwood. "They've showed it again tonight, against a quality outfit who are the English champions.

"They're not afraid to have a go. They're brave, their skills are improving and they're developing. These guys deserve a lot of credit.

"We've always known that they're good players. Getting this exposure is only going to make them better players."

O'Shea, who may very well be in charge of Ireland in the future, agreed wholeheartedly with his erstwhile Lansdowne team-mate.

"They're outstanding," he said. "Eric kicked plenty of high balls to me and he's a good friend. But look at what he's left behind in Connacht rugby. And he is not finished yet.

"We have to play them again at the Stoop. This isn't over. They also have to host Biarritz.

"Look at fellas like McSharry and the lines he runs, Tiernan O'Halloran. You've Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion. And Eoin Griffin. That's great talent. Fair play."

No team leaves Galway with grand opinions of themselves, even in victory. Harlequins and humility have been married a while now. For Connacht, their adventure continues apace.

"Yeah, another couple of handy ones," Elwood said of December's back-to-back tussles with Biarritz. "We've always said that we've learned a hell of a lot from our Heineken Cup journey last year.

"We had a good start against Zebre. We were unlucky tonight in terms of getting nothing from the game. But we're relishing every minute, we'll relish every game. We're looking forward to it. We've a tough December. We'll stay positive."

Connacht -- R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin (M Fifita 66), D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley (B Wilkinson 65), A Flavin (J Harris-Wright 64), N White (capt, R Loughney 68); M Swift (E McKeon 65), M McCarthy (M Nikora 75); J Muldoon, W Faloon (J O'Connor 56), G Naoupu.

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 (T Guest 67), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.

Ref -- J Garces (France)

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