Connacht fall short after epic fightback
Connacht 17 Saracens 23
Connacht put in one of their finest displays in recent memory, but it wasn't enough to upset Saracens on an incredible night at the Sportsground.
It was an astounding performance from Pat Lam's side, who recovered from the concession of two tries in the first 10 minutes, to rattle the Premiership leaders to their core and take a losing bonus point.
Tries from Kieran Marmion and Danie Poolman got Connacht back level at half-time, but the boot of Owen Farrell edged the win for Mark McCall's men.
It seemed as if Saracens were in the mood to back up their big reputation as they raced into a 14-3 lead. A missed tackle in midfield allowed Sarries to score off first-phase line-out ball in the ninth minute as Chris Wyles touched down. Farrell's conversion made it 7-0, but straight from the restart Dan Parks cut the gap with a penalty.
However, Saracens forged further ahead when line-breaks from Alex Goode and Mako Vunipola punched the holes for Chris Ashton to score in the corner. The home side looked in total disarray and in dire danger of being over-run, but after managing to get their hands on the ball for more than a couple of phases they settled.
After being accused of failing to kick the ball against Treviso last week, Connacht clearly decided for a change of tactic and Parks spent the first quarter peppering full-back Goode.
For the most part Goode stood up to the barrage, but in the 18th minute Connacht gained the upper hand under the dropping ball. Danie Poolman was the target for the Garryowen and he managed to palm the ball back into the chasing crowd of players. Marmion was quickest to gather the scraps and from nothing he scampered over the line from outside the '22'.
The Sportsground exploded after the retort of the early setback and the first notes of 'The Fields of Athenry' reverberated, but there was better still to come for the home side.
At that stage Connacht were utterly dominant and after a rock solid attacking scrum, the pack began to roll through the phases with John Muldoon and Brett Wilkinson picking from the rucks.
Eventually the Saracens cover was sucked in to plug the weeping defences, but as soon as they did Marmion picked out Poolman on the left with a crisp pass and he danced over.
Parks' conversion levelled the game at 17-17, but he should have given the home side a lead at half-time, but his penalty from the right slipped past the post.
After their heroics in attack towards the end of the first-half, the focus immediately from the restart turned to defence as the sore Sarries cut loose.
On three occasion in the subsequent seven minutes they came within inches of their third try. Replacement Ernst Joubert was twice foiled with great Connacht pressure and on the third occasion scrum-half Neil de Kock was stopped by the covering Poolman after a smart short-side move off the back of a five metre scrum.
A 52nd minute penalty from Farrell gave Saracens a 20-17 lead after Connacht were penalised for not rolling clear of the tackle, but with the sheer number of tackles made by the home side it was a wonder they retained their discipline until then.
But despite their dominance Saracens had only three points to their name for their third quarter efforts and after they twice kicked the ball directly into touch on the back foot, Connacht smelled blood. But critically the concession of penalties began to hurt the home side and on a couple of occasions in the Saracens half they coughed up possession.
And five minutes from time Farrell slotted his third penalty after Connacht infringed during a rolling maul, and despite a pulsating last three minutes where Connacht pummelled the Saracens line, the visitors held solid.
Connacht – G Duffy; F Carr (T O'Halloran 58), R Henshaw, C Ronaldson (J So'oialo 66), D Poolman; D Parks, K Marmion (P O'Donohoe 71); B Wilkinson (JP Cooney 71), S Henry (J Harris Wright 69), R Ah You (JP Cooney temp 35-40), M Swift (A Muldowney 58), C Clarke, J Muldoon (A Browne 54), J Heenan, G Naoupu.
Saracens –A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins (D Taylor 60), C Wyles, D Strettle; O Farrell, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth 53); M Vunipola (R Gill 73), S Brits (J George 73), M Stevens (J Johnston 73); S Borthwick, G Kruis (A Hargreaves 57), K Brown, W Fraser (E Joubert 34), B Vunipola.
Ref – Pascal Gauzere (France)