Sunday 22 September 2019

Connacht facing make-or-break reverse fixture as Wasps secure all five points in Coventry

Nepia Fox-Matamua of Connacht takes possession in a lineout ahead of Nathan Hughes of Wasps during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 2 Round 3 match between Wasps and Connacht at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, England. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Nepia Fox-Matamua of Connacht takes possession in a lineout ahead of Nathan Hughes of Wasps during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 2 Round 3 match between Wasps and Connacht at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, England. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O’Connor in Coventry

The result went as expected, but Connacht will return to Galway with a sense of what might have been if they had executed to the level they have come to expect of themselves.

The Guinness Pro12 champions now need a win at home to Wasps next Saturday to keep their quarter-final dreams alive as they target second place after the English Premiership side followed Toulouse in securing a bonus point.

Pat Lam devised a game-plan designed to maintain possession and tire the big Wasps ball-carriers out, but he wouldn’t have envisaged his lineout malfunctioning to such a degree and they didn't protect the ball well enough throughout.

Nor would the Bristol-bound coach have planned for a succession of backline injuries a la Ireland versus Australia and he finished the game with scrum-half Caolin Blade playing in the back-three. With a six-day turnaround, he now has an anxious wait to see if any of his injured players can recover in time for next week.

Despite the emphatic final score, Connacht were in the game for an hour. Jack Carty missed a chance to draw level at 20-20 after 60 minutes and appeared to have momentum at that stage.

Instead, last year’s semi-finalists took control of the final quarter with Joe Launchbury leading the way and Josh Bassett claimed the bonus point with seven minutes to spare.

A powerful scrum effort that turned Wasps over on their own ball saw Connacht start on the right foot and when the home side strayed offside John Muldoon opted to kick for the corner.

Kieran Marmion made a half-break and things were looking promising until Josh Bassett picked off Stacey Ili’s pass and when Nathan Hughes made a 60m gain with a powerful pick and go, Ili came in from the side and suddenly the Irish team were on the back foot.

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Wasps went to the corner and probed patiently before the opportunity presented itself for Kurtley Beale to power through a weak Ili tackle to score.

Despite a struggling lineout, Connacht were determined to hold on to possession and tire the big Wasps pack and they forced a kickable penalty, only for Carty to send an eminently kickable effort wide.

He made up for that by nailing a more difficult second effort after Kurtley Beale was harshly shown a yellow card for a high tackle on Niyi Adeolokun.

Jimmy Gopperth cancelled that out after Denis Buckley strayed offside as a malfunctioning lineout continued to undermine the visiting side’s efforts.

However, a Thomas Young knock-on as Wasps looked to clear from the kick-off handed the westerners an opportunity from the scrum and they took it with both hands. The set-piece creaked, but John Muldoon picked and burst Dan Robson’s initial tackle, popping the ball up for Kieran Marmion who breezed past Ashley Johnson to score.

Carty converted and a searing break from Marmion off the kick-off had Wasps on the back-foot and, although Adeolokun knocked on, they remained camped in the home side’s territory and frustrated the crowd by dominating possession.

However, the effort was taking its toll and Bundee Aki and Jake Heenan both needed treatment as Wasps repelled their advances before Tommy Taylor forced a penalty to allow his side a rare attacking chance and Gopperth put them back in front after Connacht went off their feet at the breakdown.

Although Aki was struggling it was Ili who had to come off with an injury but Wasps couldn’t add to their lead before the break as Aki made a crucial man-and-ball hit on Alapati Leiua to help keep the score at 13-10.

The lineout continued to struggle after half-time but Connacht’s individuals were still making things happen with Tiernan O’Halloran making an impressive break and finding Cian Kelleher who chose contact when he had Marmion screaming for the ball inside him.

Again, Basset came up with a crucial interception and when Buckley went off his feet the English side kicked into Connacht territory.

This time, there was no stopping them and, after Ashley Johnson made big gains from the back of the maul, his ball carrying partner in chief Nathan Hughes powered through O’Halloran and Buckley to score.

Gopperth converted but just as his side threatened to get away from Connacht, the former Leinster man handed them a way back by trying an ambitious pass that never made it past Rory Parata who ran the intercept home.

Carty reduced the gap to three once more and suddenly the visiting voices in the crowd could be heard.

They even won a lineout, but Nepia Fox-Matamua kicked the ball away and when they had another chance Matt Healy – on for the injured O’Halloran – found a gap brilliantly but couldn’t connect with Cian Kelleher for the killer pass.

Suddenly, it was Connacht who were in the ascendancy but two huge Launchbury turnovers prevented them from capitalising.

Then, just as Wasps thought they had a foot-hold, Fox-Matamua forced a brilliant turnover and a sensational Parata off-load sent Adeolokun racing forward and an offside from the home side afforded Carty the opportunity to level. He missed it.

Within minutes, the game was up as Connacht didn’t protect their own ball on half-way and, after the big men had marched the visitors back, Launchbury cut through a tiring defence to score from a lovely Gopperth cut-out pass to score.

With Connacht flagging, the bonus point looked inevitable and it came courtesy of some more hard carrying for the heavies before slick hands from Gopperth and Beale sent Bassett over for a deserved try.


WASPS - R Miller; C Wade, A Leiua (B Macken 50), K Beale, J Bassett; J Gopperth, D Robson (J Simpson 61); M Mullan (T Bristow 74), T Taylor, M Moore (J Cooper-Wooley 54); J Launchbury (Capt), K Myall (J Gaskell 67); A Johnson (A Rieder 74), T Young (G Thompson 67), N Hughes.

CONNACHT - T O'Halloran (M Healy 47); N Adeolokun, S Ili, B Aki, C Kelleher; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley (JP Cooney 74), T McCartney (D Heffernan 67), C Carey (F Bealham 47); U Dillane, Q Roux (S O’Brien 61); N Fox-Matamua, J Heenan (E McKeon 47), J Muldoon (capt).

Ref - A Ruiz (France)

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