Sunday 17 December 2017

Parks the hero on night of glory

Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran on the charge against Biarritz's Benoit Guyot.
Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran on the charge against Biarritz's Benoit Guyot.

A PENNY for Eric Elwood's thoughts this morning.

The Connacht coach will hand in his cards at the end of the season, citing the emotional involvement of taking charge of his home province. But surely the stresses are worth it when nights like this one come around.

Finally, opportunity knocked at the Sportsground – and the Westerners opened the door. They now go to Biarritz on Friday night with a genuine chance of reaching the quarter-finals. They remain long-shots, but the dream is alive.

A first win over French opposition on a bitterly cold night sent the 6,583 in attendance floating towards the city centre to reflect on a glorious night.

Dan Parks was brought to the west of Ireland to win games like this and he contributed 17 points to the cause.

Elsewhere, Eoin McKeon, Mick Kearney, Mike McCarthy and Dave McSharry led from the front in a bloody-minded display from a team with an average age of 25 and shorn of a number of key leaders through injury.

"I said it in the pre-match meeting that I felt there was something special going to happen tonight," said Elwood.

"It was a nice night for rugby – there is a perception that we like wind and rain, but we don't. Biarritz are bigger than us, we wanted to play. We had a shaky first half, but I had a feeling that if we moved them around the park and created opportunities it was going to be our night.

"It's important in Europe to win your home games. We're under no illusions that next week will be a huge challenge, a backlash, but we're hoping to get a couple of guys back.

"It sets us up nicely, we're going to France with loads of confidence."

In the press pack handed out before the game there was one statistic that stood out above all. Heineken Cup games played: Connacht 8, Biarritz 88.

The hope was that the fading giants from the Basque country wouldn't be in the mood for a cold night in Galway, but there was a grim determination on their faces from the moment they arrived in the Sportsground.

As the game went on, it turned to bewilderment as men in grey hurled themselves heroically at everything moving.

Things started ominously for Connacht when Andrew Browne spilled Mat Berquist's kick-off and, a few phases on from the resultant scrum, Dimitri Yachvili was able to put Biarritz in front with a penalty.

For six minutes, the Westerners couldn't get near the ball, but then the visitors just handed it to them. Centres Marcelo Bosch and Charles Gimenez got in an almighty mix-up and McSharry pounced on the loose ball and fed Fetu'u Vainikolo, who waltzed home unopposed to give Connacht a lead they would never relinquish.

Parks converted and the early worry seemed to lift around the Sportsground as the locals started thundering into tackled and piling into rucks.

The problem was, they were struggling to get their hands on the ball and English referee Greg Garner grew increasingly unpopular with the locals as he awarded a series of penalties in the Basques favour.

Fortunately for the hosts, the usually metronomic Yachvili wasn't at his accurate best, missing two kicks before finally slotting one when handed an opportunity in front of the posts.

Parks missed a difficult kick, but then made up for it after a move that filled the crowd with hope as some inventive back-play put Biarritz under huge pressure.

Danie Poolman's clever kick needed sharp reactions from American Takudzwa Ngwenya, who just beat Tiernan O'Halloran to the ball on the line and kicked to safety. After attempting the maul, Parks took drop-goal and the men in grey's tails were up.

Suddenly, the Biarritz players didn't look as powerful, and when Aled Brew dropped a simple pass after another scrum went backwards, the Sportsground scented blood.

But the momentum shifted before half-time when, with Connacht pressing, Parks launched an up-and-under into the visitors' '22' and McKeon arrived early and took Yachvili out of it. It was Connacht's seventh concession and Garner reached for yellow.

Suddenly the touring brass band struck up again and, having dusted himself down, Yachvili brought Biarritz back to within a point after Browne was pinged for not rolling away and that's how it stayed at the interval.

McKeon's absence didn't seem to hinder his team-mates on resumption as they tore into their opponents from the whistle, and they extended their lead through a Parks penalty as the No 8 returned.

Ominously, he was followed by Imanol Harinordoquy, who may just be returning from injury but whose presence alone usually lifts his side; former Leinster fly-half Berquist was withdrawn at the same point.


But Connacht wouldn't be bowed. From turnover ball Vainikolo made more inroads but O'Halloran lost Parks' cross-kick in the lights. Minutes later, the Australian-born Scot extended the lead to seven after more good play from teenager Robbie Henshaw.

As the clocked ticked past 70 mintues, the fly-half penned the visitors back and McCarthy forced a turnover with a choke tackle on Erik Lund. Connacht earned the penalty from the scrum, but Parks didn't need it – he slotted the drop goal and stretched the lead to 10 points.

'Ole Ole' rang out around the Clann Terrace and Connacht kept rolling, forcing another knock-on, which led to another penalty at the scrum, and Parks stretched the lead.

The Biarritz band struck up a mournful version of 'The Fields of Athenry' in tribute.

Their team pushed for a bonus and – with O'Halloran in the sin-bin – Harinordoquy managed to get over. But Yachvili missed the kick for the bonus and the final whistle went.

"I was getting a bit peed off when I thought they were going to get the bonus," Elwood said. "But thankfully they missed the kick and it finished in our favour – they got nothing and that's a good feeling."

CONNACHT – R Henshaw (M Jarvis 80); T O'Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks (capt) (M Nikora 78), K Marmion (P O'Donohoe 59); B Wilkinson (D Buckley 59), J Harris-Wright (E Reynecke 78), R Loughney (JP Cooney 80); M Kearney (D Qualter 78), M McCarthy; A Browne (J O'Connor 71), W Faloon (J O'Connor 36-40), E McKeon.

BIARRITZ – I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, M Bosch (S Burotu h-t), C Gimenez, A Brew; M Berquist (JP Barraque 48), D Yachvili (capt); F Barcella (W Blaauw 64), B August (J-P Genevois 71), F Gomez Kodela (T Synaeghel 59-75); E Lund, T Dubarry (P Taele 49); W Lauret, B Guyot (I Harinordoquy 48), R Lakafia.

Ref – G Garner (RFU)

Irish Independent

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